Catholic health systems, healthcare — November 18, 2015 at 7:13 pm

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


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.]