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Nurses, pharmacists may gain right to deny women treatment for abortion-related health care

State Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, speaks Wednesday to the House Public Health Committee about her proposal to expand the number of medical professionals permitted to opt-out of participating in abortion-related health care due to a conscience objection. Senate Bill 201 was approved 9-4 on a party-line vote in the Republican-controlled committee. It now goes to the full House.

INDIANAPOLIS — Hoosier lawmakers are poised to significantly expand the number of medical professionals permitted to deny treatment to women based on an ethical, moral or religious objection to abortion.

State law already prohibits physicians, hospital employees and health clinic staffers from being required to perform an abortion or participate in any medical procedure that results in an abortion.

Senate Bill 201 would specifically add nurses, physician assistants and pharmacists to the conscience exemption, while also expanding the definition of abortion to include prescribing, administering or dispensing an abortion-inducing drug.

The sponsor, state Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, said all health care providers in Indiana deserve the same right to refuse to participate in an abortion that physicians and hospital employees currently enjoy.

"We don't check our ethical, moral or religious consciences at the door," Brown said. "The intent of this bill is to protect those people who aren't currently protected."

Nearly all women obtaining an abortion or abortion-inducing drugs in Indiana do so at one of six abortion clinics, including the Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky clinic in Merrillville.

Just 47 of the 7,778 abortions recorded by the State Department of Health in 2017 were completed in a hospital where a nonemployee nurse, physician assistant or pharmacist might be asked to participate in an abortion procedure.

State Rep. Rita Fleming, D-Jeffersonville, an obstetrician/gynecologist, said she's more concerned that the legislation could leave women who miscarry a pregnancy without care if they are prescribed medication to expel the fetus and a local pharmacist declines to fill the prescription, because the pharmacist believes the woman is trying to have an abortion.

"I'm just afraid that pharmacists will refuse to provide a medication that is not being used to induce an abortion, but is, in fact, going to assist this woman in the completion of what we call miscarriage for a fetus that's already not alive," Fleming said.

Other Democratic lawmakers suggested the real goal is to broaden the pharmacist exemption in future years to deny women access to birth control products based on a religious objection.

Brown insisted that is not her intent.

The Senate-approved measure passed the Republican-controlled House Public Health Committee Wednesday on a party-line vote.

The full House could decide next week whether to advance the proposal to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb for his signature or veto.

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Statehouse Bureau Chief

Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.