- Kathleen SebeliusSecretary of Health and Human Services
Ensure Religiously Affiliated Hospitals Provide Emergency Abortion Care
Sometimes, pregnancy complications can become life-threatening. And federal law says that when a person's life is at risk, emergency rooms at every single hospital in the country are required to provide treatment. That's why it's outrageous that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has told all Catholic hospitals to withhold emergency reproductive care from dying women.
A hospital's religious affiliation is no excuse for disregarding the rule of law or jeopardizing a patient's life. Please tell Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to stop religiously affiliated hospitals from putting women's lives at risk.
- Secretary of Health and Human Services
We write to ask that you investigate and take appropriate action against religiously affiliated hospitals that deny emergency abortion care to women in dire circumstances. Recent reports about an incident at the Catholic-owned St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, demonstrate the need for immediate federal intervention. After a nun on the Ethics Committee approved an emergency abortion for a young mother of four in order to save her life, she was asked to resign her position by the local bishop. Subsequently, church leaders defended the decision to demote the nun and issued a statement explaining that abortion is never allowed in Catholic health facilities, even to save the life of a woman.
This incident sent a dangerous message to religiously-based hospitals across the nation to ignore the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), 42 U.S.C. § 1395dd, and the Conditions of Participation of Medicare and Medicaid (COP), 42 C.F.R. § 482.13 that require hospitals to provide emergency medical care, inform patients about their various treatment options, and assist them in effectuating the option they choose. The government unquestionably has a significant interest in ensuring that these laws are enforced in order to protect women's lives and their health. We therefore ask you to not only investigate this issue and take appropriate action, but that you also clarify in the appropriate CMS program manual, and issue a transmittal, that denying emergency reproductive health care violates federal law.
Unfortunately, the near miss at St. Joseph's was not an isolated incident. Religiously affiliated hospitals across the country inappropriately and unlawfully deny pregnant women emergency medical care, as detailed in an American Journal of Public Health article. Lori R. Freedman, et al., Where There's a Heartbeat: Miscarriage Management in Catholic-Owned Hospitals, 98 Am. J. of Public Health 1774 (Oct. 2008). In one of many examples given in the article, a woman in the process of miscarrying was bleeding so badly that the whites of her eyes turned red, but the Catholic hospital forced the doctor to delay the abortion.
Catholic hospitals operate 15% of the hospital beds in the country and are often the only hospital in a particular community -- and are therefore the only place where a woman can obtain care. As a result, many pregnant women who seek emergency reproductive health care in Catholic hospitals do not share the religious beliefs of the hospital and may not receive appropriate medical care. We ask that you enforce federal law to ensure that women and their families receive appropriate emergency care regardless of what type of hospital they enter.
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