Catholic health systems, healthcare — October 1, 2015 at 12:50 pm

ACLU files lawsuit against Catholic health system for failing to provide emergency care to pregnant women


Catholic hospital systems don’t adhere to accepted medical standards, and the ACLU is demanding an end to this religious exemption with a federal lawsuit.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Michigan announced a federal lawsuit filed today 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 a statement, Brooke A. Tucker, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney, said the following:

We’re taking a stand today to fight for pregnant women who are denied potentially life-saving care because doctors are forced to follow religious directives rather than best medical practices. Catholic bishops are not licensed medical professionals and have no place dictating how doctors practice medicine, especially when it violates federal law.

Trinity Health Corporation is headquartered in Michigan and owns and operates more than 80 hospitals around the country. The health system requires that all of its facilities abide by the Ethical and Religious Directives written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. These directives forbid a doctor working at a Catholic hospital from terminating a woman’s pregnancy — even when the failure to do so puts the woman’s health or life at risk.

I’ve been writing here for months about the dangers Catholic hospital systems pose by putting religious doctrine ahead of necessary medical care — accepted standards to which every other hospital in the country is required to adhere.

In the ACLU’s statement, said Timothy R B Johnson MD, FACOG, Chair of OB/GYN at University of Michigan, had this to say:

A hospital policy like the Directives that limits what physicians can tell and offer our patients and prohibits us from providing our patients with the best possible care is extremely dangerous. The ACLU’s suit is based on a simple principle that medical decisions should be between doctors and our patients.

A 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, known as EMTALA. A public health educator in Michigan discovered that at one of Trinity’s hospitals alone, 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’s release.

From ACLU Staff Attorney Alexa Kolbi-Molinas:

To put it simply and humanely, patient welfare must be the number one concern of health care professionals. Every pregnant woman who enters an emergency room should be guaranteed that she will get the care she needs, and should not have to worry that she won’t get appropriate care because of the hospital’s religious affiliation.

Catholic hospitals receive public money and ten of the 25 largest hospital systems in the U.S. are Catholic-sponsored. Nearly one of nine hospital beds in the country is in a Catholic facility. The directives bar doctors at those hospitals from offering — or even discussing — certain reproductive health care services, even when those services are necessary to protect a woman’ s health. As U.S. hospitals become increasingly affiliated with religious organizations, the health of American women is threatened by the refusal to provide medically appropriate and often times lifesaving services.

In December 2013, the ACLU of Michigan and the ACLU sued the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf of Tamesha Means, a woman who was denied appropriate medical treatment because the only hospital in her county is required by the bishops to follow religious directives that put women’s health at risk. That case, which is currently on appeal, charges that the Bishops acted negligently in issuing a policy that requires hospitals to violate not only the law, but also the standard of care.

Last month, the ACLU of Michigan sent a demand letter to Genesys Hospital, run by Ascension Health in Grand Blanc, Michigan, on behalf of Jessica Mann, a pregnant woman with a life-threatening brain tumor who was denied a request for a tubal ligation at the time of her scheduled cesarean section delivery next month. Ms. Mann’s doctors have advised her to have the tubal ligation at the time of her delivery because another pregnancy would increase the risks to her posed by her tumors, as would forcing her to undergo an additional procedure after the delivery. Genesis Hospital has continued to refuse to provide the medically necessary treatment. Instead, Ms. Mann has been forced to switch hospitals to a new doctor — one who has no relationship with her and no experience treating her serious medical condition — with less than a month left in her pregnancy.

You can catch up on my series on Catholic hospital systems at Eclectablog HERE.

[Image credit: Teza via Flickr.]