In perhaps the most egregious example of the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation now sweeping the country, Republican Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson has signed the deceptively-named Medical Ethics And Diversity Act into law. The measure, which gives doctors, nurses, EMTs, and other medical providers broad discretion to refuse care and treatment to LGBTQ+ patients, “if such care conflicts with their morals, ethics, or religious beliefs”, according to the bill’s language. Hutchinson praised the law as a way to “preserve [healthcare providers’] right of conscience” when choosing which patients doctors and hospitals choose to care for.
This means exactly what it implies: doctors, nurses, or other health professionals can refuse to help you if they have some type of personal hatred towards you for being LGBTQ+. To be clear, the law does not apply to emergencies, but even that is a semantic trap, as EMTs are among those who can turn LGBTQ patients away. Imagine being down on the sidewalk with a broken leg — disabling but rarely life-threatening — and the EMTs who arrive on the scene see you’re wearing a LGBTQ Pride T-shirt. Rather than splint your leg and transport you to the ER, they turn around, load their equipment back into the ambulance, and pull away, citing their “conscience”. Good luck hobbling to a hospital that might not only be miles away, but which could also refuse to help you, on the same grounds the EMS crew invoked!
This hideous law has its roots in anti-LGBTQ backlash that arose out of the Trump administration. Trump wasted no time acting against transgender troops, summarily ejecting them from the armed forces, and enthusiastically supported the Denial Of Care Rule, an administrative precursor to the new Arkansas law. Hutchinson, an early Trump supporter who later broke with the former President by acknowledging Biden as the rightful election winner, is a far-right ideologue who has also signed a bill prohibiting trans athletes from competing in teams or events matching their gender identity, further burnishing his conservative credentials. For his Deep South, Bible Belt constituency, these laws are easy wins, affirming their power to restrict the rights of vulnerable Arkansans in favor of homo- and transphobic propaganda.
This new law also allows caregivers to end ongoing treatments based on their personal objections to helping LGBTQ patients. A person who depends on hormone therapy as part of their transitional care, or a gay man seeking to renew a PrEP prescription might find themselves no longer able to receive such treatment. The profound physical and psychological effects of being told “you are unworthy of receiving medical help because of who you are” will be potentially devastating to LGBTQ+ patients all over Arkansas.
That a modern state government’s legislature passed this bill, and its governor put his name to it, in 2021, is horrifying. The unmistakable message Arkansas is sending to its LGBTQ citizens is chilling. The hatred and evil necessary to bring such legislation to fruition is patently un-American, as it places the rights of caregivers over the rights of their patients, something wholly antithetical to the principles of the Hippocratic Oath. “First, do no harm”, it seems, applies in many places, but not in Arkansas. In this very red state, if you are sick, injured, and LGBTQ+, good luck. Your doctor may choose to follow his or her “conscience”, and turn you away, your health insurer may drop you, and your pharmacist could refuse to fill your prescription. This is Southern medical ethics in the 21st century. Only the straight, it declares, are worthy of care.