One in six hospital beds in the United States is in a facility that prohibit a range of reproductive health care services even when a woman’s life or health is in jeopardy.
In some states, more than 40 percent of all hospital beds are in a facility that complies with Catholic directives, leaving entire regions without any option for certain reproductive health care, according to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union and MergerWatch.
The ACLU report shares firsthand accounts from patients denied appropriate care at Catholic hospitals, from health care providers forbidden from providing critical care because of the directives, and from physicians at secular hospitals who have treated very sick women after they were turned away from a Catholic facility.
“When a pregnant woman seeks medical care at a hospital, she should be able to trust that decisions about her treatment will be based on medicine, not religious policies,” said ACLU deputy legal director Louise Melling. “Distressingly, in an increasing number of hospitals across this country, that is not the reality. We all have a right to our religious beliefs — but that does not include the right to impose those beliefs on others, particularly when that means closing the door on patients seeking medical care. ”
The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, promulgated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, set forth standards that are to govern at Catholic health care facilities.
The directives prohibit a range of reproductive health services, including:
• Many infertility treatments.
• Abortion, even when a woman’s life or health is jeopardized by a pregnancy.
Because of these rules, many Catholic hospitals across the country are withholding emergency care from patients who are in the midst of a miscarriage or experiencing other pregnancy complications.
Catholic hospitals also routinely prohibit doctors from performing tubal ligations — commonly known as “getting your tubes tied” — at the time of delivery, when the procedure is safest, leaving patients to undergo an additional surgery elsewhere after recovering from childbirth.
Catholic hospitals deny these health services despite receiving billions in taxpayer dollars, according to the ACLU, which also said transgender and gender-non-conforming patients suffer the same and other similar harms when seeking reproductive health care.
“A Catholic hospital denied me necessary care in the midst of the worst medical emergency my family and I have ever experienced,” said Jennafer Norris, a woman who was denied a tubal ligation at a Catholic hospital in Arkansas at the time she delivered her baby, even though she had experienced serious complications and another pregnancy would be life-threatening.
Norris said, “My family and I should have been reassured that the hospital would do everything it could to protect my health and safety. But instead, they prohibited my doctor from providing the care I desperately needed. I don’t want other women to have to go through what I did.”
Looking to data from MergerWatch, the ACLU reported:
• One in six hospital beds in the United States is in a Catholic hospital.
• A total of 548 hospitals, or 14.5 percent of all short-term acute care hospitals in the U.S., comply with the Catholic directives, because they are owned by a Catholic health system or diocese, affiliated with a Catholic hospital or system through a business partnership, or are historically Catholic hospitals that continue to follow the directives despite now being owned by a secular non-profit or for-profit health care system.
This reflects an increase of 22 percent since 2001.
• In some places, such as Washington state, more than 40 percent of all hospital beds are in a Catholic hospital. Also, entire regions have no other option for hospital care.
• In 10 states, more than 30 percent of all hospital beds are in Catholic facilities, and in nearly half the states, more than one in five hospital beds is in a Catholic facility.
“The sickest patient I’ve ever treated came to me after a Catholic hospital denied her the most appropriate care because the procedure was prohibited by its religious policies,” said Dr. David Eisenberg of the Washington University School of Medicine. “As medical professionals, we have a responsibility to follow medical standards of care and do what’s best for our patients — period. It is unconscionable that some hospitals will deny a patient life-saving care because of their religious affiliation.”
The recommendations in the report include:
• The issuance of a statement from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services clarifying that all hospitals, regardless of religious affiliation, are required by federal law to provide emergency reproductive health care.
• A systematic investigation by CMS into violations by Catholic hospitals of federal laws requiring emergency care, and a commitment to taking all necessary corrective action where violations are found.
• A change in public policies, to protect women in need of reproductive health services and the practitioners who are prohibited from providing this essential care.
The ACLU has filed lawsuits against hospital system giants, including Trinity Health in Michigan and Dignity Health in California for violating federal law requiring the provision of emergency health care and for discriminating against women.
The ACLU also has sued the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for imposing the directives on Catholic hospitals and the U.S. government for allowing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to deny reproductive health care access to survivors of human trafficking.