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ACLU sues Catholic hospital for denying patients emergency abortions

Activists hope lawsuit, filed in Michigan, will raise awareness about attempts to restrict access to abortion

Civil liberties advocates filed a lawsuit Thursday against one of the nation’s largest Catholic health care groups for allegedly denying women reproductive health procedures — such as emergency abortions — in what the advocates argue is a violation of federal law.

The lawsuit aims in part to call attention to what reproductive rights advocates call Catholic hospitals’ role in an "overwhelming" attempt by social conservatives to erode the availability of reproductive health care. They cite the ongoing criticism of Planned Parenthood and a movement in many state legislatures to restrict access to abortion.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit Thursday in federal court in Michigan on behalf of its members against Trinity Health, a group of 86 hospitals in 21 states that has in recent years engaged in a number of mergers with other health care facilities. The complaint, obtained by Al Jazeera, alleges that Trinity hospitals have refused “appropriate emergency care to women suffering pregnancy complications, including miscarriages.”

“For many women experiencing pregnancy complications, even when the pregnancy isn’t viable, abortion is the standard of care necessary, or they can develop infections, become septic or experience hemorrhaging,” ACLU attorney Alexa Kolbi-Molinas told Al Jazeera.

Rights advocates say Trinity Health emergency rooms and physicians often send patients home instead of offering them procedures such as tubal ligations (commonly referred to as tube tying) or the removal of an unviable fetus in an ectopic pregnancy.

“Women are told, ‘There's nothing we can do for your miscarriage, go home,’ and think they are getting medical advice but in fact are getting religious advice,” said Washington state abortion rights advocate Mary Kay Barbieri. She has been collecting testimony from women who say they have experienced such treatment at Catholic hospitals.

The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), prohibits its medical facilities from terminating pregnancies, “even if such care is urgently needed to protect a woman’s health or life,” the lawsuit says.

The USCCB did not respond to a request for comment.

The suit argues that the refusal to perform emergency abortions amounts to a violation of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which requires health care providers to “provide such medical treatment of the condition as may be necessary to assure, within reasonable medical probability, that no material deterioration of the condition is likely to occur during the transfer of the individual from a facility.”

Trinity Health rejected that argument.

“This case has no merit,” Trinity Health spokeswoman Eve Pidgeon said in an email. “The Ethical and Religious Directives are entirely consistent with high-quality health care, and our clinicians continue to provide superb care throughout the communities we serve.”

Barbieri has long been at the forefront of the battle against Catholic health care facilities’ refusal to offer emergency or elective abortions as well as other health care like end-of-life care. She says a number of Catholic hospital mergers with non-religiously-affiliated facilities have made Washington a hot spot for what she calls an erosion of reproductive rights. Nearly half of hospital beds in Washington are Catholic-owned, she estimates.

“Catholic hospitals have been well positioned to take part in mergers,” she said, explaining that the majority of mergers happened after small, rural hospitals struggled to contend with quality standards mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

“We’re now beginning to understand how seriously the Catholic doctrine is affecting women in life or death issues or decisions on when to have a child,” she said.

The ACLU lawsuit comes days after Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards’ appearance before Congress to defend the organization’s use of federal funds. Her treatment during the appearance, particularly by Republican members of Congress, has been criticized as an assault on women’s rights.

Compared with the campaign against Planned Parenthood, the moves by Catholic hospital systems to restrict access to abortion — particularly for people in rural areas who must depend on a Catholic facility for health care — has gone unnoticed, advocates say.

“The advocacy community has highlighted when waiting periods or gestational restrictions” are imposed, said Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, the domestic program director for abortion-rights advocacy group Catholics for Choice. “The difference with [the fact] that Catholic health care systems and restrictions by the bishops’ directive is that people are unaware.”

A federal judge in July tossed out an ACLU lawsuit against Muskegon, Michigan, hospital Mercy Health Partners, a Trinity subsidiary, for repeatedly turning Tamesha Means away while she was miscarrying. The ACLU says it is appealing the ruling.

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