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The Obama Administration Must Ensure That Hospitals Provide Emergency Abortion Care

Alexa Kolbi-Molinas,
Deputy Director, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
Brigitte Amiri,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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December 22, 2010

Today is an historic day, no doubt. President Obama signed into law a bill repealing the discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Now that that has been checked off the list, we need to remind his administration that there are lots of other things to address, including ensuring that hospitals provide emergency abortion care to pregnant women.

This issue came to the nation’s attention when a hospital in Phoenix, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, provided a life-saving abortion to a young mother of four children who was dying from pulmonary hypertension and was 11 weeks pregnant. (We’ve previously blogged on this issue here and here.) Last week, the Bishop in Phoenix threatened to strip St. Joseph’s of its status as an official Catholic hospital unless St. Joseph’s agreed to sign a written pledge that it would not perform another life-saving abortion. The diocese made good on that threat yesterday, and stripped St. Joseph’s of its endorsement after the hospital defended its actions. As Amie Newman of RH Reality Check discussed last night, St. Joseph’s refused to agree to allow their patients to die. The hospital said, “Morally, ethically, and legally we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save.”

St. Joseph’s did the right thing by standing up for women’s health. But the Phoenix bishop’s actions send a chilling message to other Catholic hospitals in the country: if they save women’s lives by providing emergency abortion care, there will be consequences. This could have a profound impact on women’s health care throughout the country, especially given that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also recently reaffirmed that even life-saving abortions cannot be performed in Catholic hospitals across the country.

We know what happened at St. Joseph’s is not an isolated incident. Indeed, there are documented instances where doctors have felt their hands were tied by religious doctrine, and, as a result, could not provide appropriate health-saving abortion care. We all know that a pregnant woman can develop life-threatening conditions with no notice. A patient’s health should be a hospital’s first priority. It’s time for the Obama administration to make certain that no woman should be afraid that if she walks into a hospital she will be denied emergency abortion care simply because of the hospital’s affiliation.

Today, the ACLU sent a letter to the Obama administration asking them where things stand on this issue. This follows a letter we sent back in July 2010, to which we have yet to receive a meaningful response. Many of you have also asked them to look into the issue too, and we are asking you to do so again.

Let’s hope the administration checks standing up for women’s health off its to-do list soon.

(Cross-posted to RH Reality Check and Feministing.)