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Lawsuit: Michigan Catholic Hospitals Denying Care to Pregnant Patients

Jessica Mason Pieklo

In the span of one year, at just one of the defendant’s hospitals, several patients with pregnancy complications were denied the care they needed and to which they were entitled under federal law, the complaint states.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Trinity Health Corporation, one of the country’s largest Catholic health-care systems, for what the complaint alleges is a repeated and systematic failure to provide patients experiencing pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency reproductive health care.

Failing to do so is a violation of federal law.

Trinity Health Corporation, headquartered in Michigan, owns and operates more than 80 hospitals around the country. Trinity Health Corporation requires that all of its facilities abide by ethical and religious directives, according to the complaint. These are guidelines developed and distributed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The directives prohibit a doctor working at a Catholic hospital from terminating a patient’s pregnancy even when failure to do so puts the patient’s health or life at risk.

Hospitals within the Trinity Health system have, as a result of these policies, repeatedly and systematically failed to provide patients suffering pregnancy complications with the emergency care required by the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) and other federal laws, according to the complaint.

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In the span of one year, at just one of the defendant’s hospitals, several patients with pregnancy complications were denied the care they needed and to which they were entitled under federal law, the complaint states.

“We’re taking a stand today to fight for pregnant women who are denied potentially life-saving care because doctors are forced to follow religious directives rather than best medical practices,” ACLU of Michigan Staff Attorney Brooke A. Tucker said in a statement. “Catholic bishops are not licensed medical professionals and have no place dictating how doctors practice medicine, especially when it violates federal law.”

Advocates allege that pregnant patients seeking emergency care who were turned away from Trinity hospitals “have become septic, experienced hemorrhaging, contracted life-threatening infections, and/or unnecessarily suffered severe pain for several days.”

“To put it simply and humanely, patient welfare must be the number one concern of health care professionals,” ACLU Staff Attorney Alexa Kolbi-Molinas said in a statement. “Every pregnant woman who enters an emergency room should be guaranteed that she will get the care she needs, and should not have to worry that she won’t get appropriate care because of the hospital’s religious affiliation.”

Ten of the 25 largest hospital systems in the U.S. are Catholic-sponsored. Nearly one in nine hospital beds in the country is in a Catholic facility, increasingly putting comprehensive reproductive health-care services at risk.

Thursday’s lawsuit follows a demand letter sent by the ACLU of Michigan in September to another Catholic-affiliated facility, Genesys Hospital, for refusing necessary patient care. Genesys is run by Ascension Health in Grand Blanc, Michigan.

The demand letter was sent on behalf of Jessica Mann, a pregnant woman with a life-threatening brain tumor. Genesys Hospital has repeatedly denied Mann’s request for a tubal ligation at the time of her scheduled cesarean section delivery next month, despite Mann’s doctors advising her that another pregnancy could risk her life.

In December 2013, the ACLU of Michigan and the ACLU sued the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf of Tamesha Means, a patient who was denied appropriate medical treatment because the only hospital in her county is required by the bishops to follow religious directives. That case, which is on appeal, charges that the bishops acted negligently in issuing a policy that requires hospitals to violate not only the law, but also the standard of care.

Representatives from Trinity Health Care have not yet responded to the complaint.

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