Catholic health systems, healthcare — November 18, 2015

Catholic hospital system says it can deny women emergency care on religious grounds

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Response to ACLU lawsuit demonstrates, once again, that Catholic hospitals put ideology above patient safety.

When you show up at an emergency room in need of urgent medical care, you have a reasonable expectation that you’ll be given the treatment you need — that the staff will do everything they can to save your life and protect your health. In fact, ERs are required by law not to turn anyone away for any reason.

Unless you’re a Catholic-affiliated health system. At least, that’s what one Catholic hospital system would like you to think, even though they’re dead wrong.

In October, the ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of their members against Trinity Health Corporation, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country, for its repeated and systematic failure to provide women experiencing pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law.

In response to the lawsuit, the hospital submitted a brief arguing 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.

Let that sink in: Even when a woman’s life or health is at risk, this Catholic health system doesn’t feel a responsibility — legal, ethical or otherwise — to help her. And they’re perfectly comfortable saying it in a public legal document.

Here’s a portion of Trinity’s brief:

Plaintiffs seek injunctive and declaratory relief requiring Trinity to perform abortions even though such procedures are “prohibited by the entity on the basis of religious beliefs.” …

Michigan’s statute for protection of religious conscience similarly immunizes Trinity from liability. M.C.L.A. §333.20181, entitled, “Abortions; refusal to admit patient for performance; immunity,” states: “A hospital, clinic, institution, teaching institution, or other health facility or a physician, member, or associate of the staff, or other person connected therewith, may refuse to perform, participate in, or allow to be performed on its premises an abortion. The refusal shall be with immunity from any civil or criminal liability or penalty.”

Trinity is claiming that a law that allows healthcare providers to refuse to perform elective abortions exempts them from performing any abortions. But emergency situations such as those brought up in the ACLU’s lawsuit are another matter.

The law is clear: Any hospital’s failure to provide pregnant women appropriate emergency care, including an abortion when circumstances warrant, violates a federal law called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA).

Catholic-affiliated hospitals routinely disregard medical standards of care so they can adhere to religious directives written by Catholic bishops. Which means women and men who receive care at a Catholic health systems may not get the appropriate treatment for their condition — or they may not get any care at all.

Here are just two examples from the ACLU:

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.

At just one of Trinity’s hospitals, at least five women who were suffering from miscarriages and needed urgent care were denied that care because of the Catholic directives, according to the ACLU. The ACLU’s lawsuit is based on Trinity’s violation of the EMTALA.

But Trinity and other Catholic hospitals don’t think that law applies to them. (Spoiler: It does.) They don’t feel an obligation to save the lives of patients who come into their emergency room — a particularly troubling fact given that for many Americans, the only hospitals close enough to treat an emergency are Catholic-affiliated. Across the United States — where at least 10 of the 25 largest health systems are Catholic-affiliated — many people don’t have any choice but to hope a Catholic hospital will provide the care they need.

I’ll continue covering the Trinity case and other developments related to denials of care by Catholic hospitals, as I have been in my ongoing series.

Meanwhile, make sure you know where the nearest hospital is that isn’t affiliated with the Catholic Church. It might just save your life.

[Image credit: Parentingupstream via Pixabay.]

  • Jeff Salisbury

    Superstition plays a role in the lives of many religions including Christians, Jews and Muslims. It should come as no surprise that a hospital founded on religious principles would in essence believe that adherence to those superstitions is its core mission. http://www.trinity-health.org/our-sponsor

    • Amy Lynn Smith

      People of faith are entitled to believe whatever they’d like, but imposing those views on others isn’t right — especially when it puts their health at risk. Hospital systems should adhere to medical standards and laws.

      • Jeff Salisbury

        Agree. Absolutely. The question then becomes, can a private hospital (which agrees to not accept public dollars, let’s say) limit the health services it provides prospective patients?

        • Amy Lynn Smith

          The problem is, many (if not most) of these hospitals do accept public dollars. I personally don’t think a private hospital should be exempt from any laws, but I suppose if full disclosure were made about what they will and won’t do then people could make their own decisions. Unfortunately, many Catholic hospitals don’t even publicize their religious affiliation so the community just doesn’t know.

          • Jeff Salisbury

            Again – agree. I think the best example of such an independent institution might be Hillsdale College. Maybe on each of these hospitals signs there could be a large asterisk? ;-)

          • Don_K

            On those “sweetness and light” advertisements for St Johns-Providence that run on heavy rotation on Detroit TV (the ones with the cute CGI dove flitting around) they never tell you about the system’s Catholic affiliation, and that the hospitals will feel free to substitute the medical judgment of the bishops for that of doctors, or that they might choose not to recognize the marriage or the medical power of attorney of the wrong sort of couple. Yes I know hospitals that accept Medicare are required to defer to the patient’s expressed wishes regarding visitors, but what happens if the patient is incapacitated and can’t express his or her wishes? If I’m conscious when the EMTs arrive, I’ll express my strong wishes to be taken to Henry Ford or Beaumont rather than to St Johns-Providence.

          • Amy Lynn Smith

            You drive home such an important point, Don: It can be very difficult to know if a hospital is Catholic-affiliated! And your concerns about medical power of attorney and a patient’s wishes are well-founded, unfortunately.

          • 4Catz in Metro Detroit

            Yes, see my comment below. Medicare Part C plans offered in metro Detroit, mostly featue only catholic hospitals as in network providers. In metro Detroit, Henry Ford, The Beaumont Health System and McClaren in Pontiac are the non-catholic choices. Hospitals with non- catholic names such as Genesis and Crittenton are catholic.

        • I’m sure that Catholic hospitals get plenty of Medicare & Medicaid funding. And it’s NOT about a “limit [of] the health services it provides” (such as NOT dong ELECTIVE abortions–which is legal). It’s about DENYING LIFE-SAVING CARE (which is ILLEGAL).

  • The Hippocratic Oath is taken out back and given the Old Yeller treatment by “religious liberties.”

  • Joe Mama

    Holy FUCK.

    “Only once she began to deliver during her third visit did the hospital start providing care.”

  • Christianity is not under attack, but their sense of privilege and entitlement is.

    We are no longer a nation of ex-subjects of a nation that had one official religion. That is what the Founders rebelled against and the Framers banned in the Constitution, and it is past time that Christian zealots grapple with that fact.

    We are now too diverse to go back to implicit dominionism and still maintain our liberties.
    /rant

  • Oginikwe

    If they don’t serve all patients equally and meet the requirements of care for their taxpayer support, they should have their tax-exempt status revoked and not receive tax dollars.

  • DennisLurvey

    There should be a list of services they DO NOT PROVIDE alongside their lists of services they do provide. anyone who refuses any service to anyone on religious grounds should be proud enough to say so to the public and let the public decide if they want to do business with a business based in superstition.

    • 4Catz in Metro Detroit

      I am retired and currently picking out a new medicare plan. Almost all medicare part c plans, except HAP, feature only catholic hospitals. It is truly bizarre. If you want the choice of going to Beaumont, DMC or secular hospitals outstate, you are basically screwed. Blue Cross, Priority Health and most other plans only offer catholic hospitals as in network providers. It is insidious. Medigap (medicare supplement plans) offer treatment everywhere, but at higher plan costs. So basically, CMS is allowing catholic hospitals to offer catholic versions of end of life care, subsidized by federal Medicare Part C funds.

      • DennisLurvey

        i just sent your comment information to FFrF, a church state watchdog group. time will tell.

        • 4Catz in Metro Detroit

          I was really surprised that so many catholic hospitals are hooked into Medicare Part C. That program is heavily subsidized by the federal government. Medicare supplement plans are not. Those plans are PPO, can go anywhere that takes medicare, Generally, these policies are much more expensive. Every Blue Cross of Michigan Part C policy I looked at did not offer McClaren, Beaumont or Henry Ford in the metro area, only Catholic Hospitals.

          • I hope you will protest this and encourage others to join you. Where there are secular hospitals available, those should be the first in the government’s network.

    • That’s not enough. Some of these hospitals are the only ones available for miles around. They should be required to perform ALL legal medical services and if they refuse, the government should take over the hospitals via eminent domain in the public interest.

  • VikingAPRNCNP

    sadly the rfra will be claimed as grounds for refusal. Scotus which is dominated by catholics will say the RFRAA trumps emtala. (The interpretation is wrong on its face but that hasn’t stopped them since Bush v Gore on from using tortured legal reasoning to support the radical con position…..)

  • Mother Wolf

    This is nothing new. Catholic hospitals, doctors, clergy, and even kin, have always chosen to let a woman die, as well as her baby, rather than take any action which would deliberately cause the death of one or the other.

    However, this is not the case with Jews, except for the ultra-Orthodox who are actually not in accordance with Jewish law on this subject. Jewish tradition holds that the life and welfare of the mother must take precedence over that of the unborn child, because the rights of the born take precedence over those of the unborn.

    In addition, one has a right to defend one’s life against a “pursuer” who threatens it, even if it is necessary to kill them. This has been used in cases where unborn or born Siamese twins cannot both survive. If one is doomed and the other will die if not separated, it is permissible to carry out the separation even though it will directly cause the “pursuer’s” death. In the same situation, which arose several years ago, the Church ruled that both children must remain as they were, even if both died, rather than to take any action which would kill one to save the other.

  • Delet

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