In a country where lack of accessibility to health care has been a rampant topic of political discourse for decades, Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made matters worse by signing a bill on May 11 that legalizes “medical freedom,” which enables health care discrimination.
DeSantis enacted the “Protections of Medical Conscience” bill, Senate Bill (SB) 1580, allowing health care workers to legally discriminate against LGBTQ+ patients on the grounds of moral, ethical or religious beliefs as an extension of the First Amendment.
While the right to freedom of speech is vital, it does not surpass the importance of granting any individual the opportunity to safely seek and receive necessary medical care. The First Amendment should not be used as an excuse for discrimination, rather as a mode to express one’s personal beliefs. In SB 1580, it is not being used for such. The commodification of accessible health care prevents many Americans from seeing this necessity as what it is — a fundamental human right.
The Protections of Medical Conscience Bill aims to protect health care professionals and payers from the risk of discrimination associated with providing “conscience-based health care.” It ensures that denial of care cannot be due to a patient’s religion, sex, national origin, race or color. However the bill fails to apply the same protection to gender identity and sexual orientation. In fact, the bill is another legislative display of our country’s historically deep roots in the dehumanization of the LGBTQ+ community.
SB 1580 also allows health care workers to “exercise their moral conscience” without punishment or fear of being reported. It enables payment entities, insurance companies and medical providers — including pharmacists, mental health professionals and ambulance drivers — “the right to deny care on the basis of any conscientious objection.” While this objection can be made based on “moral” or “ethical” beliefs, the bill fails to explicitly define what constitutes morality and ethics.
The vagueness of this rhetoric when explaining what these values mean can be extremely harmful in the court of law. Trying to determine the parameters of when workers could deny health care can extend not only to the LGBTQ+ community, but to other marginalized communities affected by this bill. By not directly defining the grounds for when such a decision can be made, the bill only sets the scene for more individuals to face discrimination.
To have a better understanding of SB 1580, critics have likened its capabilities to that of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. This lawsuit arose in 2017 when a Colorado bakery owner refused to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding on the grounds that it violated his religious beliefs. The court ruled in favor of the bakery, stating that their right to freedom of speech allows them to deny service on any grounds they deem necessary. However, the repercussions of this are far more detrimental in the medical field; an action such as Masterpiece Cakeshop in health care puts thousands of Americans at risk.
With no protections granted towards LGBTQ+ individuals, SB 1580 could be used to deny HIV-prevention medication and gender-affirming care, as well as other record-keeping and testing opportunities. In addition, this newfound fear of discriminatory behavior could prevent members of the LGBTQ+ community from seeking the care they need.
Lives have already been lost due to LGBTQ+ discrimination in health care. In 1995, Washington D.C.-based hairstylist Tyra Hunter was involved in a hit-and-run car accident. Although the car accident was proven to be non-fatal, she died due to lack of treatment for her injuries.
Emergency Medical Technicians began helping Hunter until they realized she was transgender. Upon realization, they immediately halted treatment and proceeded to laugh for five to seven minutes, calling her horrendous transphobic and racial slurs. These critical minutes could’ve been spent performing live-saving treatment on the unconscious, bleeding Hunter. When Hunter eventually arrived at the hospital, doctors refused to tend to her. When they finally did, it was too late.
Hunter’s tragic, needless death at the hands of deliberate discrimination against the transgender community is one of many. Her story of denial to medical care is bound to repeat itself with the enactment of SB 1580.
We must hold health care workers accountable to their duty of serving the public. Health care workers should not be in their profession if they are unable to treat all patients with equality regardless of their beliefs. Unfortunately, in the case for SB 1580, the lack of accountability will result in the LGBTQ+ community being disproportionately exploited.
Although Florida was once considered a swing state, recent midterm election turnout shows that it is now entirely red. With the harmful laws that have been previously enacted — including the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and 6-week abortion ban in the “Heartbeat Protection Act” — the passing of SB 1580 sets a dangerous precedent for what could occur in other red states moving forward.
Trista Lara is an Opinion Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. She can be reached at email@example.com.