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Colorado ACLU Files Complaint Against Catholic Hospital Over Anti-Abortion Discussion Policy

Jason Salzman

The ACLU of Colorado has filed a complaint with a state agency alleging that a rural Catholic hospital is in violation of both federal and state law by directing its doctors not to discuss abortion with patients, even when pregnancy threatens the life of the pregnant person.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado filed a letter of complaint with a state agency Wednesday alleging that a rural Catholic hospital is violating state and federal law by directing doctors not to discuss abortion with their patients.

The complaint is based on allegations by Dr. Michael Demos, a long-time staff cardiologist at Mercy Regional Medical Center, that a hospital administrator demanded he not, under any circumstances, discuss the possibility of abortion with his patients.

About a year after advising a patient in 2012 that the standard treatment for her possible congenital illness would be abortion, Demos received a letter from Mercy’s chief medical officer stating that, in accordance with the Catholic Ethical and Religious Directives followed by Mercy, he “should not recommend abortion—even to patients who may have serious illnesses,” according to the ACLU complaint.

Later, Mercy Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Boyd went further, telling Demos in a meeting that he shouldn’t mention abortion at all to a patient, even if a pregnancy is a threat to a woman’s life, according to the ACLU complaint and confirmed by Demos to the Durango Herald.

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Demos had suggested the option of abortion to a women who he thought might have Marfan syndrome, a severe illness that can cause a woman’s aorta to rupture during pregnancy. It turned out, his patient did not have the disease, and she later gave birth.

The patient complained to Mercy because she thought Demos had recommended abortion, as opposed to suggesting the possibility of it, triggering Demos’ rebuke from Boyd, according to the ACLU complaint.

“When the medical standard of care would recommend termination, the hospital is inappropriately forcing staff physicians to choose between obeying their employer or following their professional medical and ethical obligations to their patients,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU legal director, in a statement. “Moreover, following the hospital’s directive deprives patients of the full information they need to make informed decisions about their medical care.”

Mercy hospital did not return numerous requests for comment, but media reports, citing a written statement from Mercy, noted that the hospital believes the ACLU complaint is inaccurate.

Doctors and patients “are free to use all information in the medical literature to make appropriate medical decisions,” according to the statement, as quoted by the Associated Press.

“We feel the statements made in the complaint are based on inaccurate information and look forward to resolving the issue directly with the [Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment],” said Mercy hospital in its statement, as reported by the Herald.

Upon hearing Mercy’s response, Silverstein at the ACLU speculated perhaps Mercy doesn’t consider abortion an “appropriate medical decision.”

The facts supporting the ACLU complaint, Silverstein argued, based on Mercy’s letter and meeting with Dr. Demos, should not be in dispute.

The ACLU asked the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which sets standards for state hospitals, to respond to its complaint by November 27.

The controversy here in Colorado reflects similar cases of Catholic hospitals trying to dictate some medical treatments in accordance, not with common medical practice, but with directives adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Catholic Health Initiatives and Adventist Health Systems, which own Mercy and other hospitals, follows the Bishops’ directives for health care. The U.S. Conference of Bishops did not immediately return a request for comment. Neither did the Archdiocese of Pueblo, which covers the region in Colorado where Mercy hospital is located.

“This is perhaps one more example in what’s emerging as a series of incidents around the country involving a conflict related to the religious directives of hospital administration and the physicians who practice in those hospitals,” Silverstein told RH Realty Check, citing a recent Mother Jones article documenting the growth in the number of Catholic hospitals in the United States and disputes over women’s health treatment in Arizona and Kentucky, for example.

This is the only dispute of this nature that’s come to the attention of the ACLU in Colorado, Silverstein said.

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