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The Rising Threat of Religious Hospitals Denying Women Medical Care

Alexa Kolbi-Molinas,
Deputy Director, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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February 25, 2016

Imagine you are 20 weeks pregnant, only halfway through your pregnancy, when you start to miscarry. It’s the middle of the night; you call an ambulance and are rushed to the hospital. The hospital admits you and consults with a specialist who concludes that the only option is to induce labor and complete the miscarriage — either way, the fetus will not survive. But without induction of labor you could die too.

But instead of acting quickly to save your life, the hospital admits you and watches you get sicker and sicker. For 10 hours, the hospital will do nothing to complete the miscarriage, even though the hospital knows that every moment the miscarriage drags on increases your risk of contracting a life-threatening infection, which you ultimately do.

This is a true story — just one of several recently reported in the Guardian — of what happened to one woman because she went to a Catholic hospital. Rather than follow the standard of care, this hospital followed religious directives written by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Although the hospital did not allow her to die, it waited until the risk of death was sufficiently imminent to give her the care she needed. Not everyone is so lucky.

As Catholic hospitals proliferate in this country — right now, at least 10 of the 25 largest hospital systems are Catholic-affiliated — it’s more and more likely that pregnant women facing emergencies will unwittingly find themselves in a Catholic hospital that will refuse to provide medically appropriate care. These hospitals are subsidized by public funds, yet they adhere to religious policies that require doctors to withhold life- and health-saving medical care from the patients they serve. This is completely unacceptable.

And it is also illegal. When Catholic hospitals turn women away or withhold life-saving care because they let the bishops’ rules trump the medical standard of care, they are breaking the law. That’s why we brought the case against the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf of Tamesha Means, as well as other lawsuits to force a change in these policies. As these lawsuits work their way through the courts, we will continue to fight to ensure that women around the country can walk into a hospital and expect to receive medical care that isn’t restricted by religious directives.

Catholic hospitals are gambling with women’s lives, plain and simple. 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. Saving a woman’s life must be every hospital’s first priority.

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