News Law and Policy

Court Rules Catholic Hospital Can Refuse Reproductive Health Care

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A California judge ruled a Catholic hospital chain could deny tubal ligation to patients on the grounds of Catholic directives without violating anti-discrimination laws.

A California state court judge has tentatively rejected a lawsuit brought by a California woman against a Catholic hospital that has refused her request for a tubal ligation.

Rebecca Chamorro and Physicians for Reproductive Health sued Dignity Health and Mercy Medical Center in Redding, California in December 2015. Chamorro, who is eight months pregnant and scheduled to give birth at the end of January, wanted a tubal ligation at that time, according to the complaint. But Dignity Health refused Chamorro’s request and told Chamorro’s doctor that he could not perform the procedure, citing religious directives written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Those directives state that direct sterilization is “intrinsically evil.”

That refusal, according to the complaint, amounts to sex discrimination because the prohibition against sterilization disproportionately impacts women.

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Dignity Health is the fifth largest health system in the nation and the largest hospital provider in California. Each year it receives millions in government grants, Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, and government programs, according to recent tax filings.

Chamorro had asked the court for an order declaring that the hospital chain’s refusal violated California civil rights laws, business and professions laws, and the Health and Safety Code, as well as an injunction requiring the hospital allow the procedure.

Superior Court Judge Ernest Goldsmith denied that request in a tentative ruling last week. Chamorro’s discrimination claim is likely to fail because Dignity Health’s sterilization policy “applies equally to men and women,” Goldsmith wrote.

Goldsmith continued: “[p]laintiff can obtain the desired procedure at other hospitals that do not follow defendant’s directive.”

According to Chamorro’s attorneys, their client is still scheduled for a January 28 cesarean section at Mercy Medical, where her doctor will not be allowed to perform the tubal ligation procedure. Despite last week’s order tentatively rejecting Chamorro’s claims, Elizabeth Gill with the ACLU of Northern California said in a statement the rest of their case would move forward.

“We will continue to litigate the case on behalf of Physicians for Reproductive Health,” Gill said. “We believe that the courts will ultimately ensure that government-funded hospitals serving the general public and people of all faiths cannot use religion to discriminate, interfere in the doctor-patient relationship, or deny women basic healthcare.”

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