A bill that would broadly protect medical professionals from penalty for declining to perform procedures that violate their conscience, such as abortions, won support from a Senate committee Thursday.

Opponents said the bill is dangerously nebulous and could lead to denial of critical health care for LGBTQ individuals and others.

Senate Bill 90 from Sen. Steve Meredith, R-Leitchfield, would create a "conscience" exemption for health care providers, allowing anyone who holds a "religious, moral, ethical or philosophical" belief from opting out of administering care without retribution and limit one's liability for making decisions on those bases.

Meredith described the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee as a "firewall" to protect providers who wish to rely on their conscience in an increasingly evolving world of health care.

"The advances in cloning, gene manipulation, DNA mapping, remote robotic surgery, surrogacy, reproductive technologies, assisted suicide, gender change, organ harvesting ... and creating and ending life are all part of this brand new world that we're experiencing," Meredith said. "God only knows what the future looks like for life and death experiences."

With these developments "comes moral and ethical challenges we've never had to deal with, so there are very few, if any, precedents that can guide us," he said.

Meredith insisted that the point of his bill is not to deny health care to anyone, even though the bill would give legal protections to providers who refuse care if they feel doing so violates any belief they maintain. Rather, "it puts health care back in the hands of the people who can make the best decisions about their patients," he said.

It's unclear what type of care, specifically, Meredith is seeking to address with his bill language, in part because the applicability of the measure is so sweeping -- a point some committee members and opponents criticized on Thursday.

Jeremy McFarland, a transgender man who grew up in Campbellsville, told the committee he worried that passage of the bill would increase the likelihood that providers perpetuate a selective philosophy of care, like what he experienced as a teenager.

In search of support and unable to find a therapist in his hometown, he often had to drive to Lexington to find those services, he said. At times, he was told by counselors they couldn't take him on as a patient. When he began taking testosterone injections as a young adult, his pharmacist eventually refused to continue dispensing his prescribed medication, he said.

"Being denied health care when I needed it most put me at incredible risk," McFarland said. "The harm this bill would cause is evident and frightening to me."

Other opponents characterized it as a conspicuous attempt to further disenfranchise patients seeking an abortion, particularly after bill proponent Dr. Lewis Hicks, who practiced gynecology and obstetrics from 1975 to 2015 in Lexington, told his story of performing an abortion, despite his "conscience screaming at me: don't be a part of this dastardly deed."

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