If You Are Pregnant, Stay Away From Catholic Hospitals

Photo: James H. Karales/Getty Images.
Brigitte Amiri, is a senior staff attorney at the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project. This piece is republished with permission from the ACLU.

If you're pregnant, and can choose which hospital to go to, do not go to a Catholic one. I'm serious. It is finally coming to light that Catholic hospitals are systematically denying pregnant women essential health care, even when their life is at stake. It’s unethical, illegal, and just plain wrong.

One horrifying recent example is Jessica Mann’s story. While Mrs. Mann was pregnant with her third child, her doctors explained to her that, because she had preexisting brain tumors, a subsequent pregnancy could kill her. They highly recommended that when she delivers her baby she get a tubal ligation to prevent another pregnancy, and that she do so at the same to time as she delivers her baby to avoid the serious (and completely unnecessary) risk to her health that would be caused by a second procedure. Even when brain tumors or other health concerns aren’t a factor, the safest and best time for a woman to have a tubal ligation is immediately after delivery while she is still in the hospital.

Mrs. Mann’s OB/GYN is trained and willing to tie her tubes, but the Catholic hospital where Mrs. Mann planned to deliver — and where she delivered her other children — is prohibiting Mrs. Mann’s doctor from performing the procedure because of religious rules written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that govern what care the hospital will offer to patients. Those rules, called the Ethical and Religious Directives, apply even when the patient’s doctor says that the care is medically necessary.

Catholic hospitals also routinely put the health of women suffering from miscarriages at risk, as well. That is exactly what happened to Tamesha Means. Ms. Means was in the middle of her pregnancy, looking forward to having another child, when her water broke. She rushed to the only hospital emergency room in her area — which happened to be a Catholic one — and she was turned away three times despite being in excruciating pain and eventually developing a life-threatening infection. The pregnancy was doomed, but because of the Bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives, the hospital never told her that, giving her false hope that she could go on to have a healthy baby. The hospital also never told her that she was putting her life at risk by not terminating the pregnancy. Ms. Means finally started to deliver while she was being sent home for the third time. That’s when the hospital finally decided to treat her.

Sadly, these aren’t isolated incidents. Today, one in nine hospital beds is in Catholic-affiliated institutions that receive public money, but which abide by the Ethical and Religious Directives when providing medical care. That just isn’t right. Patients ought to be able to rest assured that their care is determined by their doctor’s best judgment, not someone else’s religious views, particularly when the hospital receives public funds.

That is why we filed a lawsuit on behalf of Tamesha Means against the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for imposing religious rules on hospitals that prevent doctors from providing the best medical care to their patients. And that is why we have sued Trinity Health Corporation for systematically turning away women who need emergency medical care, in violation of federal law.

So if you are able to pick your hospital, pick one where you know you will get all the care that you need, one where you won’t be turned away in an emergency, and one where you will be treated with dignity and respect. But asking women to choose a different hospital can’t be the only answer. We know that, for all sorts of reasons, many women don’t have a choice. The Catholic hospital is the only one in their area; it’s the only hospital where their doctor practices or that takes their insurance; or it’s the hospital where the ambulance takes them.

For these reasons, we will continue to fight to make sure that anyone who seeks care at any hospital is guaranteed to get the care they need.


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