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Religious Liberty and Women's Health

Alexa Kolbi-Molinas,
Deputy Director, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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May 20, 2010

Last December, doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix saved a young woman’s life. The woman, who was 11 weeks pregnant, was suffering from pulmonary hypertension, a condition that her doctors said carried a near-certain risk of death unless she ended the pregnancy. The nurse who authorized the life-saving abortion, Sister Margaret Mary McBride, a Catholic nun with 34 years experience in health care management, was rewarded with a demotion.

When the Catholic Church, or any other institution, chooses to serve the general public — and to operate an emergency room, no less — it cannot impose its religious principles on its patients to the detriment of the patients’ health. Not only does it violate medical ethics to do so, but federal law requires hospitals to save the life of all patients who come through their emergency room doors. In this case, the correct medical decision was made. But given the repercussions for the nun involved, the next woman at risk might not be so lucky.

No one is suggesting that Catholic hospitals be forced to provide nonemergency abortion services. That is not the issue here. However, it is a tragic fact of life that sometimes a woman suffers a medical complication that puts her pregnancy, and sometimes her own life, at risk. It should go without saying that these women do not deserve to die simply because the nearest hospital is a Catholic one.

Though St. Joseph’s did the right thing for the patient, not all Catholic hospitals do. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in October 2008, describes a number of incidents of miscarriage mismanagement in Catholic-owned hospitals. In perhaps the most glaring example, one doctor described how his patient was septic, with a temperature of 106 degrees, and was bleeding so badly “that the sclera, the white of her eyes, were red, filled with blood,” yet he was not allowed to treat her until the fetal heartbeat stopped (as it inevitably would) of its own accord. Unwilling to continue to practice medicine this way, and risk his patients’ lives, the doctor resigned.

Contrary to what many assume, the ACLU firmly believes in the fundamental right to religious exercise and expression, and we have a long history of defending that right — including on behalf of those with deeply held anti-abortion beliefs. In fact, it is situations like these that have led the ACLU to advocate for laws and policies that respect both individual religious liberty and patient safety and autonomy. The ACLU believes that in a free society, one that protects diverse faiths and beliefs (including no religious belief at all), some level of religious accommodation is often appropriate. For example, an individual pharmacist opposed to contraception should have the option of asking a colleague to fill a valid prescription for birth control; an assistant district attorney opposed to capital punishment should have the option to pass on a death penalty case. But a hospital is never allowed to close its doors, to tie its doctors’ and administrators’ hands, and to allow a woman to bleed out on its floor because it is affiliated with a religion that opposes abortion. We all may not agree about abortion, but we can agree that hospitals that serve the general public should not be permitted, under any circumstances, to violate federal law and deny life-saving care.

(Cross-posted to RH Reality Check.)

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