ACLU Announces Lawsuit Against Catholic Hospital System for Failing to Provide Emergency Medical Care to Pregnant Women

October 01, 2015

DETROIT — The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced a federal lawsuit today filed 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 suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law. 

"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,” said ACLU of Michigan Staff Attorney Brooke A. Tucker. “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, which is headquartered in Michigan and owns and operates more than 80 hospitals around the country, and receives public funding, requires that all of its facilities abide by the Ethical and Religious Directives promulgated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. These directives prohibit a doctor working at a Catholic hospital from terminating a woman’s pregnancy even when the failure to do so puts her health or life at risk. 

“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,” said Timothy R B Johnson MD FACOG, Chair of OB/GYN at University of Michigan. “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 the 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.

“To put it simply and humanely, patient welfare must be the number one concern of health care professionals,” said ACLU Staff Attorney Alexa Kolbi-Molinas. “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. 

Earlier this 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. The 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.

Read the ACLU lawsuit.

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