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One of the Nation’s Largest Catholic Hospital Systems Says It Can Deny Women Emergency Care Because of Its Religious Affiliation

Brigitte Amiri,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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November 18, 2015

I suppose it shouldn’t really have come as a surprise. But there it was in black and white in a recent court document: Trinity Health, one of the largest health care systems, saying that because of religious exemption laws, its Catholic affiliation allows it to violate the law and refuse to provide pregnant women with emergency medical care.

In response to a lawsuit we filed against Trinity for systematically refusing to treat pregnant women in emergencies, the hospital giant recently submitted a brief that argues (incorrectly) that state and federal law allow Trinity to “refuse to allow abortions to be performed on hospital premises,” in the context of emergency miscarriage treatment when the woman’s life or health is at risk.

Scary stuff.

But it’s also completely consistent with everything else we know about Catholic hospitals. We know, for example, that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which sets the rules for all Catholic hospitals, has said that its hospitals should let a woman die rather provide an emergency abortion. The bishops made their policy crystal-clear when a Catholic hospital in Phoenix defied the bishops’ rules and saved a woman’s life by providing an abortion. The bishops excommunicated a nun who was on the committee that approved the abortion, and the hospital was stripped of its Catholic status.

We also know that there have been countless women that have rushed to Catholic hospitals when something started to go horribly awry with their pregnancies, only to be turned away, allowed to deteriorate, or worse. Tamesha Means was one of those women. She was in the 18th week of pregnancy, happily awaiting the birth of her child, when her water broke. She rushed to the hospital, but unfortunately because of the bishops’ rules, the hospital didn’t tell Tamesha that the pregnancy was doomed and that the safest course was an abortion. The hospital sent her home — not once, but twice — while she was in excruciating pain and developing an infection. Only once she began to deliver during her third visit did the hospital start providing care.

And as researcher Lori Freedman has documented over and over again, Catholic hospitals have routinely delayed providing care, allowing pregnant women’s health to deteriorate. For example, one doctor described a patient in the middle of her pregnancy who was miscarrying. She was bleeding so much that the whites of her eyes filled with blood, and she developed a serious infection and a 106 degree fever. The only way to treat her was to terminate the pregnancy. The Catholic hospital wouldn’t allow the abortion, however, until the fetus had no heartbeat. The doctor said that the woman was “dying before our eyes.” The doctor provided unauthorized treatment to save her life, and then promptly quit his job. The woman survived but spent 10 days in intensive care.

Tragically, not all women survive. Savita Halappanavar died after rushing to a hospital in Ireland when she was miscarrying at 17 weeks. At first she just complained of back pain but over the course of three days, Savita got sicker. Her pain was intense; she developed a serious blood infection; and she and her husband begged the doctors to complete the miscarriage by providing an abortion. But the hospital said they couldn’t “help her” because Ireland is a Catholic country.

So is it a surprise that Trinity Health, which operates 88 hospitals in more than 20 states throughout the U.S., says it has the legal right to withhold emergency care from any pregnant woman who goes to the emergency room at any one of those hospitals—even if her life or health is at risk? Perhaps not based on what we already know.

But is it shocking and scary? You bet. And wrong? Yes. And illegal? Yes.

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 care. Losing a wanted pregnancy is devastating enough as it is. No woman should be worried on top of her loss that she also won’t be able to get the medical care she needs because of the religious affiliation of the hospital. Instead, every pregnant woman facing an emergency should be able to go into any hospital with the peace of mind that she will be cared for according to her medical needs, not the hospital’s religion. Anything short of that is not only a violation of the law, but it’s also downright unethical. And these hospitals accept and are subsidized by public funds (a.k.a. our tax dollars). They need to follow the law and let doctors do their jobs.

We fight every day at the ACLU to make sure women get the care they need and are not discriminated against. Everyone has the right to their religious beliefs, and to worship as they see fit, but Catholic bishops have no right to play doctor or break the law.

If you have been denied care at a Catholic hospital, we would like to hear from you.

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