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Religion shouldn't influence medical care in hospitals that get Medicare funds, the ACLU says

July 3, 2010 |  6:00 am

A woman arrives at the hospital with a condition called pulmonary hypertension. The arteries supplying her lungs are unable to deliver enough blood, which threatens their ability to delivery oxygen throughout her body. Making matters worse, she is 11 weeks pregnant, which puts additional strain on her weakened body. If the pregnancy continues, the woman surely will die.

St. Joseph's Hospital abortion This was the situation confronting doctors last November at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. Despite the fact that the hospital was owned by Catholic Healthcare West and its directives do not permit abortion, doctors terminated the woman’s pregnancy to save her life.

The procedure was carried out after the hospital’s Ethics Committee met to discuss the case. The committee approved it because another of its directives allows doctors to provide necessary medical treatment even if the result is the loss of a pregnancy, according to this report posted on the website of the National Catholic Reporter.

Although the patient in Phoenix got life-saving treatment, the American Civil Liberties Union is concerned that other women in similar circumstances might not have the option of ending their pregnancies if they are treated at religious hospitals. On Thursday, the ACLU sent a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services asking the agency to clarify that hospitals receiving government funds may not deny patients “emergency reproductive health care."

"Religiously affiliated hospitals are not exempt from complying with [the law], and cannot invoke their religious status to jeopardize the health and lives of pregnant women seeking medical care,” the letter states.

The law in question is the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which “requires hospitals to stabilize or transfer patients who are facing an emergency,” according to the letter. “An emergency medical condition is one that, absent proper treatment, places the health of the patient in serious jeopardy, risks serious impairment to bodily functions, or serious dysfunction of any bodily organ or part.”

In some extreme cases, proper treatment involves terminating a pregnancy. With 15% of the country’s hospital beds operated by Catholic hospitals, the risk that some of them may be violating the law is real.

The ACLU outlined three cases in which women already in the midst of miscarriages were denied necessary care by Catholic hospitals; one of those women “developed pulmonary disease, resulting in lifetime oxygen dependency” as a result, the letter says.

Future patients treated at St. Joseph’s in Phoenix might fare worse than the woman who went there in November. Sister Margaret Mary McBride, a nurse and nun who served on the Ethics Committee and consented to the emergency abortion, was excommunicated by the leader of the Phoenix diocese, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted. Her punishment “sends the message to other hospital employees, at St. Joseph’s and at other Catholic hospitals around the country, that they risk punishment if they provide life-saving pregnancy terminations in the future,” according to the ACLU.

In a statement available online, the Phoenix diocese says that “an unborn child is not a disease. … The direct killing of an unborn child is always immoral, no matter the circumstances, and it cannot be permitted in any institution that claims to be authentically Catholic.”

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. Credit: Matt York / Associated Press

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