"The lives and health of pregnant women seeking medical care should be of paramount importance," said Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. "No woman should have to worry that she will not receive the care she needs based on the affiliation of the nearest hospital."
In a letter, the ACLU asks that the Centers investigate situations in which patients' lives and health were jeopardized as a result of hospitals' adherence to religious doctrine, rather than medical ethics, and to issue a formal clarification that denying emergency reproductive health care violates EMTALA and COP. Catholic hospitals operate 15 percent of the nation's hospital beds.
The ACLU sent the letter in response to situations such as one that occurred in Phoenix last year, in which a pregnant woman with life-threatening pulmonary hypertension was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, a Catholic hospital, which then debated whether to terminate the pregnancy, even though without such a procedure, the woman would have died. While the hospital's ethics committee ultimately approved the procedure, the sister who served on the committee was demoted.
"While the hospital in this case made the right decision in saving this woman's life, the subsequent treatment of the staff could have a chilling effect on the staff at hospitals across the country that may face similar situations in the future," said Daniel Pochoda, Legal Director of the ACLU of Arizona. "Religiously-affiliated hospitals – which are often the only hospital in a particular area – are not exempt from providing critical care to patients who come through their doors."
The situation in Phoenix is part of a worrying pattern of religiously-affiliated hospitals denying emergency reproductive care to patients, as highlighted in an article in the American Journal of Public Health. The article cites instances in which miscarrying women were forced to travel to another facility after religiously-affiliated hospitals refused to terminate their pregnancies, and a woman who was denied care until the moment her fetus' heartbeat stopped, placing her in grave peril.
"The law rightly requires hospitals to provide life-saving medical care to their patients," said Vania Leveille, ACLU Legislative Counsel. "The government must ensure that the well-being of the patient does not take a back seat to religious beliefs."
The letter is available at: www.aclu.org/reproductive-freedom/aclu-letter-centers-medicare-and-medicaid-regarding-denial-reproductive-health-