Analysis Law and Policy

Did Wisconsin Anti-Choice Lawmakers Accidentally Force Catholic Hospitals to Grant Admitting Privileges to Abortion Clinics?

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The legal battle over Wisconsin's admitting privileges law may be setting up a new fight involving religious hospitals.

Wisconsin is one of the states in the country where abortion access is most zealously under attack. But in anti-choice lawmakers’ zeal to try and regulate legal abortion out of existence in the state, did they accidentally force Catholic hospitals to grant admitting privileges to abortion providers?

The Wisconsin legislature introduced its admitting privileges law on June 4, 2013, and despite the fact that the law was opposed by all the state’s leading medical associations—including the Wisconsin Medical Society, the Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards, the Wisconsin Academy of Family Physicians, the Wisconsin Hospital Association, and the Wisconsin Public Health Association—and the legislative record was devoid of any documentation of a medical need or purpose for such a regulation, the law passed. As quickly as the law passed, it was challenged and blocked by a federal court as likely unconstitutional.

But as the immediate, legal challenge to the constitutionality of the admitting privileges requirement plays out, another legal battle over the law has bubbled up. While area providers applied for admitting privileges to try and comply with the law, local Catholic hospitals affected by the admitting privileges requirement originally said they would not grant privileges to abortion providers. Those statements were then contradicted by Dr. Matthew Lee, a doctor on the credentials committee at the Wheaton Franciscan St. Joseph campus in Milwaukee. He told the court during arguments over whether the law should be blocked that he believed religiously affiliated hospitals in the state would be open to granting privileges to doctors who perform abortions. Lee’s statement, in turn, was almost immediately challenged by the chief medical officer for Wheaton Franciscan, who said her organization would not grant privileges to abortion providers, citing the hospital’s Catholic affiliation. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, when asked about the Wheaton Franciscan policy and its apparent inconsistencies with Lee’s affidavit, the hospital’s assistant general counsel, Matt Moran, said in a statement, “The medical staff and hospital board have discretion in making decisions on granting privileges and can consider the mission, values, and operational needs of the organization. Requiring certain professional, ethical, and character qualifications is recognized by the courts as valid and related to the operation of the hospital.”

Although religiously affiliated hospitals in the region have figured out publicly whether they would or would not grant admitting privileges to abortion providers, attorneys for the State of Wisconsin told the court any plan by the hospitals to deny privileges because of a Catholic anti-abortion stance would be in violation of federal law, which “provides that hospitals accepting federal funds may not discriminate against a physician because that physician has participated in or refused to participate in abortions.” That’s thanks to the Church Amendments, federal statutes enacted after Roe v. Wade that are designed to protect federally funded hospitals and doctors from being required to participate in abortion or sterilization procedures. But the Church Amendments also protect doctors who perform abortions, including in decisions about privileges. The law, in part, prohibits “discrimination in the extension of staff or other privileges to any physician or other health-care personnel, because he performed or assisted in the performance of a lawful sterilization procedure or abortion.” If doctors are ultimately denied admitting privileges and can prove they were not granted those privileges specifically because they perform abortions, the hospital systems could lose federal dollars in the form of research and public health grants.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Surely an institution like Wheaton Franciscan understands what’s at stake in violating the Church Amendments. It’s difficult to imagine anti-abortion lawmakers purposefully pushing abortion restrictions that would actually force Catholic hospitals to grant privileges to abortion providers. So what exactly is going on here?

All this confusion raises the obvious question of whether Wisconsin is being set up as a test case for just how much protection the Church Amendments offer providers or if this is really a question of lawmakers not knowing and not caring about the legislation they put forward. According to the Journal Sentinel, state Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin), who authored the Wisconsin bill, said she was not only unaware of the Church Amendments, she initially asked if they “were part of [the Affordable Care Act]” which suggests that Lazich had failed in her legislative due diligence. U.S. District Judge William Conley believed that was at least part of the story: “Here, there are no legislative findings. … The record contains no testimony from a physician or other medical expert about whether, how, or why the admitting privileges requirement would further women’s health. On the contrary, the record contains only physicians and medical organizations speaking against the bill.”

It’s one thing to find evidence of lawmakers not understanding the legislation they sponsor, but anti-choice legal strategy has rarely been that haphazard, even by today’s Tea Party standards. Importantly, the reach of the Church Amendments has largely been untested, especially in the context that pits the rights of an abortion provider against the discretion of a Catholic hospital’s decision-making process related to admitting privileges, and now may be just the time to mount a test case. The more than 60 lawsuits challenging the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act are designed to do one thing: radically redefine the nature of religious liberty rights to protect corporate interests. In other states that have also recently passed privileges requirements for abortion providers, religiously affiliated hospitals have denied the doctors’ applications by citing their failure to meet other standards, such as admitting a certain number of patients per year. In Wisconsin’s case, there’s already a public record that the hospitals are opposed to granting privileges to physicians who perform abortions, which suggests, at least in part, an unlawful motivation on the part of hospitals to deny privileges.

It’s an important question with real lives at stake. According to Law Students for Reproductive Justice, nearly 70 percent of religiously affiliated hospitals in the United States are Roman Catholic, which makes the Catholic health-care system the largest nonprofit provider of health care in the country. Under the Religious and Ethical Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, Catholic hospitals cannot, as directed by the church, provide contraception, sterilization, most infertility treatments, let alone abortions. Research conducted in 2010 revealed that one-fifth of physicians who practice in religious hospitals have faced a “clinical ethical conflict,” because hospital policies conflict with the physician’s medical judgment. Should the anti-discrimination provision of the Church Amendments is struck down in court, it won’t matter if Roe is overturned or not.

Analysis Politics

Paul Ryan Uses Falsehoods Behind Texas HB 2 to Push Yet Another Abortion Restriction

Ally Boguhn

In a CNN town hall Tuesday night, Paul Ryan agreed with an audience member's baseless sentiment that the Supreme Court had struck down “commonsense health and safety standards at abortion clinics" in its Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt ruling.

During a CNN town hall on Tuesday night, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) pushed falsehoods about the anti-abortion provisions at the center of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt being necessary for patient health and safety. Ryan nonsensically then used the decision as a launch point to promote House Republicans’ Conscience Protection Act, which passed in the House Wednesday evening and supposedly shields those who object to abortion from discrimination. The only things Texas’ provisions and the legislation have in common, however, is that they’re all about blocking access to abortion care.

Town hall audience member and executive director of New Jersey Right to Life Marie Tasy claimed during the event Tuesday that the Supreme Court had struck down “commonsense health and safety standards at abortion clinics,” in its landmark ruling against two provisions—the admitting privileges and surgical center requirements—of Texas’ HB 2.

“Absolutely,” Ryan said in response to Tasy’s remarks. “I agree with that.”

But the provisions of the law in question were not about keeping anybody safe. As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the opinion declaring them unconstitutional, “When directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.”

All the provisions actually did, according to Breyer on behalf of the Court majority, was put “a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion,” and “constitute an undue burden on abortion access.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Despite this, Ryan then used the falsehood at the center of HB 2 as a call to action for yet another anti-choice restriction: the Conscience Protection Act. After fielding the question from Tasy about how anti-choice issues could be advanced in Congress in the wake of the Court’s decision, Ryan pivoted to claim that the government is “forcing people to conduct [abortion] procedures”:

Actually, tomorrow we are bringing a bill that I’ve been working on called the Conscience Protection Act. I’m pro-life. I think you probably know that. And I would like to think we could at least get consensus in this country that taxpayers shouldn’t be funding abortions. That the government shouldn’t be forcing people to conduct procedures, especially health-care workers, against their own conscience.

Our First Amendment is the right of conscience, religious freedom. Yet our own government today, particularly in California, is violating that right and not allowing people to protect their conscience rights, whether they’re Catholic hospitals or doctors or nurses. Tomorrow we’re bringing the Conscience Protection Act to the floor and passing it. It’s Diane Black’s bill. And it is to give those citizens in America who want to protect their conscience rights their ability to defend those rights. That is one thing we’re doing tomorrow to protect the conscience, because I believe we need to cultivate a culture of life. And at the very least, stop the government from violating our conscience rights.

Ryan would go on to make similar remarks the next day while speaking on behalf of the bill on the House floor, though this time he added that the “bill does not ban or restrict abortion in any way …. All it does is protect a person’s conscience.” 

As Rewire‘s Christine Grimaldi previously reported, the Conscience Protection Act would codify and expand on the Weldon Amendment. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the amendment prohibits states that receive federal family planning funding from discriminating against any health care entity-including physicians, health-care professionals, hospitals, and insurance plans, “on the basis that the health care entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.”

The Weldon Amendment currently must be passed each year as part of annual appropriations bills.

Grimaldi noted that the act “would give health-care providers a private right of action to seek civil damages in court, should they face alleged coercion or discrimination stemming from their refusal to assist in abortion care.”

Ryan proposed similar conscience protections as part of his recently released health-care plan, though, as Grimaldi wrote, “the Conscience Protection Act goes a step further, allowing providers to sue not only for threats, but also for perceived threats.”

But those whom Ryan and his colleagues are claiming to defend already have protections that impede access to abortion care, according to critics of the measure.

Ryan, for example, suggested in both his CNN appearance and his House floor speech the next day that California’s requirement that insurance plans must cover elective abortions under “basic health services” violates “religious freedom.” But a June investigation by the HHS Office for Civil Rights into whether California’s requirement violated the Weldon Amendment rejected similar complaints by anti-choice group Alliance Defending Freedom.

“Let’s be very clear—right now, current law says that hospitals, insurers, and doctors may refuse to perform an abortion or provide coverage for abortion, which already greatly limits women’s access to legal procedures,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) Wednesday, speaking after Ryan on the House floor during remarks before the Conscience Protection Act passed.

“More importantly, when a woman’s health is in danger, providers would not be required to act to protect the health of that mother. This bill would allow them to refuse to … facilitate or make arrangements for abortion if they have a moral objection to it,” continued Schakowsky. “They could also refuse to provide transportation to another hospital if a woman is in distress if that hospital provides abortions.”

Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, explained in a statement following the passage of the legislation in the House that the measure is about blocking access to abortion. “The Conscience Protection Act is dangerous, discriminatory legislation designed to block women’s access to abortion care,” said Ness.

“For example, a hospital could rely on the Conscience Protection Act to turn away a woman in an emergency situation who needs an abortion or refuse to provide a woman information about her treatment options. This legislation is a license for providers to discriminate against women and undermine their access to essential, constitutionally protected health care,” Ness said.

Analysis Law and Policy

Justice Kennedy’s Silence Speaks Volumes About His Apparent Feelings on Women’s Autonomy

Imani Gandy

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s obsession with human dignity has become a hallmark of his jurisprudence—except where reproductive rights are concerned.

Last week’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt was remarkable not just for what it did say—that two provisions in Texas’s omnibus anti-abortion law were unconstitutional—but for what it didn’t say, and who didn’t say it.

In the lead-up to the decision, many court watchers were deeply concerned that Justice Anthony Kennedy would side with the conservative wing of the court, and that his word about targeted restrictions of abortion providers would signal the death knell of reproductive rights. Although Kennedy came down on the winning side, his notable silence on the “dignity” of those affected by the law still speaks volumes about his apparent feelings on women’s autonomy. That’s because Kennedy’s obsession with human dignity, and where along the fault line of that human dignity various rights fall, has become a hallmark of his jurisprudence—except where reproductive rights are concerned.

His opinion on marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, along with his prior opinions striking down sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas and the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor, assured us that he recognizes the fundamental human rights and dignity of LGBTQ persons.

On the other hand, as my colleague Jessica Mason Pieklo noted, his concern in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action about the dignity of the state, specifically the ballot initiative process, assured us that he is willing to sweep aside the dignity of those affected by Michigan’s affirmative action ban in favor of the “‘dignity’ of a ballot process steeped in racism.”

Meanwhile, in his majority opinion in June’s Fisher v. University of Texas, Kennedy upheld the constitutionality of the University of Texas’ affirmative action program, noting that it remained a challenge to this country’s education system “to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.”

It is apparent that where Kennedy is concerned, dignity is the alpha and the omega. But when it came to one of the most important reproductive rights cases in decades, he was silent.

This is not entirely surprising: For Kennedy, the dignity granted to pregnant women, as evidenced by his opinions in Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Gonzales v. Carhart, has been steeped in gender-normative claptrap about abortion being a unique choice that has grave consequences for women, abortion providers’ souls, and the dignity of the fetus. And in Whole Woman’s Health, when Kennedy was given another chance to demonstrate to us that he does recognize the dignity of women as women, he froze.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

He didn’t write the majority opinion. He didn’t write a concurring opinion. He permitted Justice Stephen Breyer to base the most important articulation of abortion rights in decades on data. There was not so much as a callback to Kennedy’s flowery articulation of dignity in Casey, where he wrote that “personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education” are matters “involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy.” (While Casey was a plurality opinion, various Court historians have pointed out that Kennedy himself wrote the above-quoted language.)

Of course, that dignity outlined in Casey is grounded in gender paternalism: Abortion, Kennedy continued, “is an act fraught with consequences for others: for the woman who must live with the implications of her decision; for the persons who perform and assist in the procedures for the spouse, family, and society which must confront the knowledge that these procedures exist, procedures some deem nothing short of an act of violence against innocent human life; and, depending on one’s beliefs, for the life or potential life that is aborted.” Later, in Gonzales, Kennedy said that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban “expresses respect for the dignity of human life,” with nothing about the dignity of the women affected by the ban.

And this time around, Kennedy’s silence in Whole Woman’s Health may have had to do with the facts of the case: Texas claimed that the provisions advanced public health and safety, and Whole Woman’s Health’s attorneys set about proving that claim to be false. Whole Woman’s Health was the sort of data-driven decision that did not strictly need excessive language about personal dignity and autonomy. As Breyer wrote, it was a simple matter of Texas advancing a reason for passing the restrictions without offering any proof: “We have found nothing in Texas’ record evidence that shows that, compared to prior law, the new law advanced Texas’ legitimate interest in protecting women’s health.”

In Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s two-page concurrence, she succinctly put it, “Many medical procedures, including childbirth, are far more dangerous to patients, yet are not subject to ambulatory-surgical-center or hospital admitting-privileges requirements.”

“Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws like H.B. 2 that ‘do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion,’ cannot survive judicial inspection,” she continued, hammering the point home.

So by silently signing on to the majority opinion, Kennedy may simply have been expressing that he wasn’t going to fall for the State of Texas’ efforts to undermine Casey’s undue burden standard through a mixture of half-truths about advancing public health and weak evidence supporting that claim.

Still, Kennedy had a perfect opportunity to complete the circle on his dignity jurisprudence and take it to its logical conclusion: that women, like everyone else, are individuals worthy of their own autonomy and rights. But he didn’t—whether due to his Catholic faith, a deep aversion to abortion in general, or because, as David S. Cohen aptly put it, “[i]n Justice Kennedy’s gendered world, a woman needs … state protection because a true mother—an ideal mother—would not kill her child.”

As I wrote last year in the wake of Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell, “according to [Kennedy’s] perverse simulacrum of dignity, abortion rights usurp the dignity of motherhood (which is the only dignity that matters when it comes to women) insofar as it prevents women from fulfilling their rightful roles as mothers and caregivers. Women have an innate need to nurture, so the argument goes, and abortion undermines that right.”

This version of dignity fits neatly into Kennedy’s “gendered world.” But falls short when compared to jurists internationally,  who have pointed out that dignity plays a central role in reproductive rights jurisprudence.

In Casey itself, for example, retired Justice John Paul Stevens—who, perhaps not coincidentally, attended the announcement of the Whole Woman’s Health decision at the Supreme Court—wrote that whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is a “matter of conscience,” and that “[t]he authority to make such traumatic and yet empowering decisions is an element of basic human dignity.”

And in a 1988 landmark decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, Justice Bertha Wilson indicated in her concurring opinion that “respect for human dignity” was key to the discussion of access to abortion because “the right to make fundamental personal decision without interference from the state” was central to human dignity and any reading of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms 1982, which is essentially Canada’s Bill of Rights.

The case was R. v. Morgentaler, in which the Supreme Court of Canada found that a provision in the criminal code that required abortions to be performed only at an accredited hospital with the proper certification of approval from the hospital’s therapeutic abortion committee violated the Canadian Constitution. (Therapeutic abortion committees were almost always comprised of men who would decide whether an abortion fit within the exception to the criminal offense of performing an abortion.)

In other countries, too, “human dignity” has been a key component in discussion about abortion rights. The German Federal Constitutional Court explicitly recognized that access to abortion was required by “the human dignity of the pregnant woman, her… right to life and physical integrity, and her right of personality.” The Supreme Court of Brazil relied on the notion of human dignity to explain that requiring a person to carry an anencephalic fetus to term caused “violence to human dignity.” The Colombian Constitutional Court relied upon concerns about human dignity to strike down abortion prohibition in instances where the pregnancy is the result of rape, involves a nonviable fetus, or a threat to the woman’s life or health.

Certainly, abortion rights are still severely restricted in some of the above-mentioned countries, and elsewhere throughout the world. Nevertheless, there is strong national and international precedent for locating abortion rights in the square of human dignity.

And where else would they be located? If dignity is all about permitting people to make decisions of fundamental personal importance, and it turns out, as it did with Texas, that politicians have thrown “women’s health and safety” smoke pellets to obscure the true purpose of laws like HB 2—to ban abortion entirely—where’s the dignity in that?

Perhaps I’m being too grumpy. Perhaps I should just take the win—and it is an important win that will shape abortion rights for a generation—and shut my trap. But I want more from Kennedy. I want him to demonstrate that he’s not a hopelessly patriarchal figure who has icky feelings when it comes to abortion. I want him to recognize that some women have abortions and it’s not the worst decision they’ve ever made or the worst thing that ever happened to him. I want him to recognize that women are people who deserve dignity irrespective of their choices regarding whether and when to become a mother. And, ultimately, I want him to write about a woman’s right to choose using the same flowery language that he uses to discuss LGBTQ rights and the dignity of LGBTQ people.  He could have done so here.

Forcing the closure of clinics based on empty promises of advancing public health is an affront to the basic dignity of women. Not only do such lies—and they are lies, as evidenced by the myriad anti-choice Texan politicians who have come right out and said that passing HB 2 was about closing clinics and making abortion inaccessible—operate to deprive women of the dignity to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term, they also presume that the American public is too stupid to truly grasp what’s going on.

And that is quintessentially undignified.