Illinois law has for more than four decades protected those who oppose providing or receiving medical treatment because of their religious beliefs. Now Democrats want an exception to allow repercussions for those who refuse vaccinations in the battle against COVID-19.
Long considered a shield for physicians whose religious beliefs precluded their performing abortions, the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act has become a pandemic lightning rod. Lawsuits invoking it are challenging employers trying to enforce rules requiring testing for or inoculation against the coronavirus.
"The Health Care Right of Conscience Act was never intended to cover a pandemic where we're trying to keep people alive," Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, said after a news conference in Springfield Wednesday.
The law states that Illinois will " respect and protect the right of conscience of all persons who refuse to obtain, receive or accept" medical care as well as those providing it. It prohibits repercussions against anyone for "refusing to act contrary to their conscience."
Rep. Robyn Gabel, an Evanston Democrat, calls her proposed COVID-19 carve-out a "clarification." Proponents say it doesn't require vaccination, just bars right of conscience as a reason for refusal.
Republicans challenged Gabel in debate during committee action this week that sent the proposal to the House floor for a vote as early as Wednesday, the next-to-last day of the Legislature's fall session.
"At what point does the government stop telling people they can't take their health care into their own hands?" asked Republican Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, noting that if diagnosed with cancer, he could refuse prescribed chemotherapy.
"That doesn't affect all these other people around you," Gabel replied. "That's not a communicable disease. We are doing this to address a communicable disease that has worldwide impact."