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Hospital Illegally Refused Sterilization Procedure, Pro-Choice Group Charges

Jason Salzman

The Center for Reproductive Rights, in a March 4 letter sent to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center on behalf of the patient, Jennifer Versailles, stated that the Catholic hospital's denial of the tubal ligation procedure violates state and federal laws mandating pregnancy related care.

A Catholic hospital in Colorado’s central mountains has refused the request of a staff doctor to perform a tubal ligation, a sterilization procedure, after a cesarean section that took place on Tuesday.

The Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), in a March 4 letter sent to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center on behalf of the patient, Jennifer Versailles, stated that the Catholic hospital’s denial of the tubal ligation procedure violates state and federal laws mandating pregnancy related care.

It also constitutes sex discrimination, the letter charged.

James Corbett, Centura Health’s senior vice president for community health and values integration, did not address Versailles’ case when asked for comment, but he alluded to the hospital’s faith-based directives.

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“We cannot discuss specifics about a patient due to federal patient privacy laws,” Corbett wrote in a statement to Rewire. “St. Anthony Summit Medical Center is among the Centura Health hospitals which adhere to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERDs).”

It is CRR’s “understanding” that St. Anthony’s refusal to perform the procedure is based on the ERD directives, which are promulgated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to the letter from CRR, a national reproductive freedom organization.

The ERD directives state that sterility procedures on men or women are “not permitted in a Catholic health care institution,” unless treatment of an illness would dictate otherwise and alternative remedies are not available.

“We uphold our faith-based mission and strongly respect the patient-physician relationship,” Corbett wrote in his statement.

Autumn Katz, CRR senior staff attorney, told Rewire that this case proves this wrong.

“They say that they value a doctor-patient relationship, but policy suggests otherwise,” Katz said. “This is absolutely interference in a very disturbing way in the doctor-patient relationship, because this is the care that Jennifer’s doctor and she have decided is best for her health. The hospital for other reasons is denying her ability to access that care.”

Corbett wrote that the hospital facilitates the doctor-patient relationship by encouraging alternatives.

“In instances where a patient cannot obtain a requested elective procedure at a Centura Health hospital under Catholic sponsorship, we encourage the patient and physician to work together for a solution,” Corbett wrote.

Asked to explain why Versailles didn’t have the tubal-ligation procedure at a different hospital, Katz said, “My understanding is [Versailles] felt that the safest course for her was to do it at this hospital. That’s the hospital where her doctor practices and where she’s delivered her prior two children. She was not willing at the last minute to find a new doctor and travel, under what could be precarious conditions, to a different hospital where she could have had the tubal procedure.”

“Ms. Versailles, in consultation with her doctor, Dr. Andrew Catron, has decided that immediate postpartum tubal ligation is in her best medical interest, given her age and prior medical history,” the CRR letter states. “Ms. Versailles has two young children—ages two and five, both delivered by C-section—and she and her husband do not wish to have more children.”

The letter points to an American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ recommendation that postpartum tubal ligation should be considered an “urgent surgical procedure” because it reduces medical risks and obviates the need for an additional surgery with anesthesia.

St. Anthony Medical Center, located in Frisco, Colorado, is a member of the Centura Health hospital chain, formed by a 1996 merger of Adventist Health System and Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) hospitals.

It describes itself on its website as a “faith-based, nonprofit health care network designed to manage and strengthen their hospitals and services.”

“We extend the healing ministry of Christ by caring for those who are ill and by nurturing the health of the people in our communities,” the website states.

The CHI network has been criticized for trying to dictate medical treatment in accordance with the religious guidelines of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

After Catron requested permission to perform the tubal ligation in December, according to CRR’s letter, the Rev. Godwin Nnamezie of St. Anthony’s Ethics Committee wrote Catron an email stating, “Honestly, you know that we cannot do direct sterilization at this Facility. Procedures that induce sterility are only allowed when it is to cure or alleviate any serious illness of the patient.”

Katz said her organization hasn’t decided how it will respond.

“We will evaluate all options,” Katz said. “We will talk to Jennifer in the next few weeks and see how she is feeling. I don’t expect this to be an isolated incident. And it’s a danger to many women. It has repercussions beyond this procedure, for a hospital to dictate medical care from religious directives rather than what’s the best medicine for patients.”

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