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Colorado Agency Won’t Investigate Complaint Against Catholic Hospital That Banned Doctor From Discussing Abortion

Jason Salzman

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment ruled Wednesday it lacks the authority to investigate a complaint, filed by the ACLU of Colorado, alleging that a rural hospital illegally mandated a staff doctor not to discuss abortion with patients.

A Colorado regulatory agency ruled Wednesday that it lacks authority to investigate a complaint that a rural Catholic hospital illegally banned a staff cardiologist from discussing abortion with his patients.

An administrator at Mercy Regional Medical Center told Dr. Michael Demos in 2012 that, in accordance with Catholic Religious and Ethical Directives, Demos should not discuss abortion with patients, even if pregnancy threatens a woman’s life, according to the complaint, filed in November by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado.

In response to the ACLU complaint, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued a letter February 12 stating that the “clinic where the event occurred is not licensed by the Department and is not under its jurisdiction.”

“Until Dr. Demos hears differently from the hospital, he remains in an unacceptable bind where he must choose between obeying the directive that was conveyed to him by the administrators last year and his medical and ethical obligations to his patients,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado legal director, in a statement. “We believe that directive violates state and federal law and we encourage the hospital to clearly state that it has no plans to further interfere with its physicians’ practice of medicine.”

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The ACLU is evaluating its options on how to proceed with its complaint, ACLU of Colorado spokesperson John Krieger told Rewire.

A Mercy spokesperson told the Durango Herald Friday that although abortion is contrary to Catholic ethical directives, doctors at Mercy are not prohibited from discussing any medical treatment with patients. Mercy initially responded to the ACLU complaint, when it was filed in November, by saying through a spokesperson that the complaint was based on “inaccurate information” and that doctors are free to select treatments.

Mercy spokesperson David Bruzzese reiterated this position Thursday, according to the Herald, saying that “patients and our employed physicians are free to use all information in the medical literature to make appropriate medical decisions.”

“I trust them,” said Demos, when asked by Rewire if he believes that Mercy won’t dictate his or other doctors’ medical decisions in the future. “I take their word at face value. It’s a great hospital we have here. We all want the best for our patients. That’s our reason to be here.”

Still, Demos would have preferred that the ACLU complaint had been investigated and resolved.

“People need to feel comfortable about their care and have their questions answered,” he said. “Sometimes it’s better to have resolution.”

Demos also pointed out that while he trusts his hospital, he believes that administrators at other hospitals may not allow doctors the same freedoms that he hopes to have.

Catholic hospitals like Mercy, which is part of the Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) network, have been criticized for trying to dictate medical treatment in accordance with the religious guidelines of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (CHI expects its physicians to follow Catholic teachings.)

“Not all hospitals have the same administrators in place,” he said. “There is room for interpretation. Here, the interpretation is more liberal, perhaps. The public has a right to know what’s going on.”

“We’re all consumers eventually,” he said. “Let’s face it. The worm turns.”

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