Fighting for Emergency Care for Pregnant Women at Catholic Hospitals

When you’re pregnant, what can go wrong is often the last thing you want to think about.  Unfortunately, the unimaginable sometimes happens: you’re in the middle of your pregnancy when all of a sudden your amniotic fluid starts to leak.  You’re in extreme pain.  You start to bleed.  You start to get a fever.  You rush to the nearest hospital.  You’d expect that any hospital emergency room would provide you the proper care.  Right?  Unfortunately, that’s not the case if you end up at a Catholic hospital. 

Today we announced a lawsuit against one of the nation’s largest Catholic health care systems, for imposing religious rules on its staff that prevent doctors from performing an abortion in emergency cases involving miscarriage or other pregnancy complications—even when a woman’s life is at risk. We’re suing Trinity Health Corporation after discovering that it has repeatedly failed to provide women suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortion care as required by federal law.   

Trinity Health Corporation, which owns and operates more than 80 hospitals around the country, requires that all of its facilities abide by the Ethical and Religious Directives promulgated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.   These directives prohibit a doctor working at a Catholic hospital from terminating a woman’s pregnancy even when the failure to do so puts her health or life at risk.    

These directives are written by Catholic bishops, not licensed medical professionals, and should not dictate how doctors practice medicine, especially when it violates federal law.

The failure to provide pregnant women appropriate emergency care, including an abortion when the circumstances warrant, violates a federal law called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, known as EMTALA.  A public health educator in Michigan discovered that at one of Trinity’s hospitals alone, at least five women who were suffering from miscarriages and needed urgent care were denied that care because of the Catholic directives.

Ten of the 25 largest hospital systems in the U.S. are Catholic-sponsored, and nearly one of nine hospital beds in the country is in a Catholic facility. The directives bar doctors at those hospitals from offering — or even discussing — certain reproductive health care services, even when those services are necessary to protect a woman’ s health. As U.S. hospitals become increasingly affiliated with religious organizations, the health of American women is threatened by the refusal to provide medically appropriate and often times lifesaving services.

In December 2013, we sued the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf of Tamesha Means, a woman who was denied appropriate medical treatment because the only hospital in her county is required by the bishops to follow religious directives that put women’s health at risk. That case is currently on appeal.  Today, we are suing Trinity on behalf of all of our members in every state where Trinity operates to make sure this never happens again, and no woman is ever denied the emergency care she needs.

We all have a right to our religious beliefs, but that does not mean we should be able to use those beliefs to harm others. Legally and morally, saving a woman’s life and health must be every hospital’s first priority.  Every pregnant woman who enters an emergency room should be guaranteed that she will get the care she needs. 

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Anonymous

Catholics are an embarrassment to the human race for opening up hospitals then taking tax $$ just so they can control women so "souls can be born" even if born dead. They should pay big time for any woman who dies from their practices. Pathetic.

Anonymous

These hospitals are profitable - the Catholics are not taking money from church goers and putting them into the hospitals to provide charity care. Yes, they claim to provide lots of charitable care, but so does pretty much every hospital - even for profit hospitals. Even with the charity care, they hospital's billings pay enough to run the hospital.

The argument that there won't be medical care if we say Catholic hospitals need to follow the law is B.S. That said, I do believe the goal is to be able to do whatever they want in the name of religion, with the "I'll take my ball and go home" argument if anyone challenges that.

As for freedom, it's hard to have any freedom if the local emergency room doesn't try to save your life.

Anonymous

By filing this lawsuit, the ACLU accepts the implicit premise that it is the responsibility of religious organizations -- rather than the state -- to ensure access to reproductive health services. That's a dangerous road to take, don't you think? Won't this erode civil liberties in the long run rather than expand them? Shouldn't the ACLU attack the snake at its head by asking why women don't have access to secular, public hospitals offering the full range of services? Shouldn't the ACLU be fighting for the expansion of a secular, public healthcare system so that women have alternatives to religious hospitals? Why isn't a lawsuit being filed against the state? Shame on you, ACLU, for taking the easy way out.

Gabriel Rodrigu...

To the commentators that object who have posted on this site: Remember, you have been permitted to voice your opinion on the ACLU website. Not a media website. And you did anonymously. Nobody wants and abortion, it is a last resort. The woman (women) for whom this lawsuit has been filed were all facing serious health risks that the Catholic church would have them face alone. Not a Christian value.

Anonymous

I've been a victim of Trinity Health's poor treatment of pregnant women with complications. Although physically I'm okay, mentally I suffered because of their treatment. Thank goodness I was able to get necessary, non-judgmental care at another local hospital! I feel so much compassion and empathy for women who live in communities monopolized by Catholic hospitals. Please don't misread this article, nobody wants to shut needed hospitals down, they just want all patients to get necessary care. Thank you ACLU for representing and fighting for women like me!

Anonymous Nurse...

Thank you for keeping hospitals accountable. EMTALA requires that all emergency rooms, regardless of religious affiliation or any other factor, perform lifesaving treatment. Catholic hospitals do not have the right to let women with life-threatening pregnancy complications die.

Lynn

I'd like to know more details. When PROM happens, moms can be put on bedrest, monitored closely for infection, and treated with antibiotics. Membranes can reseal and babies go to term! If infection occurs and cannot be controlled, the baby can be delivered via induction or caesarian and both mom and baby can be treated with antibiotics. This is still morally okay in Catholic terms even if the baby is too young to survive outside the womb--it is NOT abortion, because nobody is killing the baby, just allowing nature to take its course in a tragic situation. Abortion is not some magical "cure" for PROM. There is a whole lot of relevant information missing from all the news reports.

Anonymous

Agreed!

Ohtobide

You are mistaken. The Catholic Church does not allow the delivery of a fetus that is too young to be viable, even if the woman will die if the pregnancy continues.

It constantly surprises me how few Catholics know the teaching of their own Church.

Anonymous

As someone who suffered PROM at 20 weeks, your notion that the "membranes can reseal" is incorrect. I suggest you read an ACOG article (or two or three).

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