The American Civil Liberties Union is pressing a federal health agency to ensure that religiously-affiliated hospitals provide emergency reproductive care as required by federal law.
"The lives and health of pregnant women seeking medical care should be of paramount importance," expressed Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, in a statement Thursday. "No woman should have to worry that she will not receive the care she needs based on the affiliation of the nearest hospital."
In a letter dated Thursday, the ACLU asked the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) to investigate situations in which the lives and health of patients were jeopardized as a result of hospitals' adherence to religious doctrine, rather than medical ethics.
The group also asked the Baltimore-based agency to issue a formal clarification that denying emergency reproductive health care violates the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) and the Conditions of Participation of Medicare and Medicaid (COP).
"Religiously-affiliated hospitals – which are often the only hospital in a particular area – are not exempt from providing critical care to patients who come through their doors," stated Daniel Pochoda, legal director of the ACLU of Arizona, which witnessed one of the cases that prompted Thursday's letter.
"The government must ensure that the well-being of the patient does not take a back seat to religious beliefs," added ACLU Legislative Counsel Vania Leveille.
In announcing its latest move, the ACLU said it was acting in response to situations such as one that occurred last year in Phoenix, where a pregnant woman with life-threatening pulmonary hypertension was taken to a Catholic hospital, which then debated whether to terminate the pregnancy.
While the ethics committee of St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center ultimately approved the procedure, the sister who served on the committee was demoted.
"[T]he hospital in this case made the right decision in saving this woman's life," said Pochoda.
However, he added, "the subsequent treatment of the staff could have a chilling effect on the staff at hospitals across the country that may face similar situations in the future."
According to the ACLU, Catholic hospitals operate 15 percent of the nation's hospital beds.
Previously known as the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA), CMS is a federal agency within the United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) that administers the Medicare program. It also works in partnership with state governments to administer Medicaid, the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and health insurance portability standards.