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41,000 Doctors to Join Lawsuit Against Catholic Hospital Over Denial of Care

Nicole Knight

Religious directives, written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, forbid doctors at Catholic facilities from providing birth control and performing common reproductive health procedures.

California’s largest medical association will join a lawsuit against the state’s largest hospital system for using religious directives to deny basic reproductive health care to patients.

The 41,000-member California Medical Association (CMA) filed a motion Wednesday in state Superior Court to join an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit against the Catholic hospital chain Dignity Health, the fifth largest health-care system in the country.

The ACLU lawsuit stems from the case of a Dignity Health patient who was denied a tubal ligation. The patient’s physician agreed to perform the procedure during her cesarean section, but the hospital refused the doctor’s request, citing religious directives written by Catholic bishops that classify sterilization as “intrinsically evil.”

The ACLU of Northern California and the law firm of Covington & Burling LLP in December filed the lawsuit on behalf of the patient, Rebecca Chamorro, and Physicians for Reproductive Health.

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The plaintiffs argue that forcing doctors to deny basic health care on the basis of religious objections creates a conflict between the medical well-being of patients and the directives of the Catholic hospital system. They also contend that withholding medical care for reasons unrelated to medicine is illegal in California.

A court hearing on CMA’s motion is set for May 25 in San Francisco.

Dignity Health operates 29 hospitals across California. Nationally, ten of the 25 largest hospital systems are Catholic sponsored, according to a statement released by the ACLU. One in nine hospital beds is in a Catholic facility.

Patient health is jeopardized when religious directives at these facilities trump medical judgment, advocates argue.

“The religious directives are bad for both patients and doctors and present a real threat to the medical judgment of these doctors,” Elizabeth Gill, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, said in a statement.

Religious directives, written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, forbid doctors at Catholic facilities from providing birth control and performing common reproductive health procedures like tubal ligation, sterilization, and abortion, even when the patient’s health is at risk.

The CMA intends to join the lawsuit because of the larger issues of patient safety represented in Chamorro’s case.

“Patients and their physicians, not hospital administrators following religious or any other non-medical directives, should be the primary decision-makers in each and every case to ensure each patients’ health care needs are met and the most appropriate, highest quality care is being provided,” Dr. Ruth Haskins, president-elect of the California Medical Association, said in a statement.

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