A Christian health system in Colorado has fired a doctor who wanted to aid in ending the life of a patient living with terminal cancer.
Centura Health Corp., which operates hospitals across Colorado and Kansas, terminated geriatrician Dr. Barbara Morris last week just days after Morris filed a state lawsuit in a quest to help a 64-year-old patient end his life at home. Morris’ termination was first reported by Kaiser Health News.
Physician-assisted suicide has been legal in the state since 2016. But Centura Health, which is jointly operated by Adventist and Catholic churches, opposes physician-assisted suicide on religious grounds.
While state law permits Morris to aid in the death of her patient, Cornelius “Neil” Mahoney, the Trump administration has bolstered religious freedom protections for healthcare providers who refuse to participate in medical procedures or treatments they feel violate religious beliefs.
The lawsuit filed by Morris and Mahoney alleges that Centura’s policy barring doctors from participating in assisted suicide is a violation of Colorado’s End of Life Options Act, which gives doctors the ability to prescribe lethal drugs to their patients facing terminal illnesses.
“The [state law] explicitly provides a limited ‘opt out,’ allowing a healthcare facility to prohibit its physicians from writing prescriptions for aid-in-dying medication for patients who intend to take the medication on the premises of the facility,” the lawsuit reads. “However, the defendant, in this case, has adopted a much broader policy than the [law] permits.”
The lawsuit states that Centura Health’s policy bars doctors from prescribing the lethal drugs even if the patient intends to take the medication at home. The lawsuit adds that Centura Health also bars doctors from engaging “in any stage of qualifying a patient for use of medical aid in dying medication.”
Morris was informed last week that she was terminated because she violated church doctrines that governed her employment by trying to help Mahoney, who was told has four- to 14-months to live, end his life.
According to Kaiser Health News, Centura Health filed a court document last Friday asking that the case to be elevated to the federal courts so that the health system could make a First Amendment religious freedom defense of its policy. In the document, the health system argued that the doctor had “encouraged an option that she knew was morally unacceptable to her employer.”
Doctors employed by Centura Health are governed by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which states that “Suicide and euthanasia are never morally acceptable options.” The guideline describes euthanasia and assisted suicide as "intrinsically evil."
Centura Health President Vance McLarren explained the decision to terminate in a letter hand-delivered to Morris.
“Rather than encouraging patient Cornelius Mahoney to receive care consistent with that doctrine or transferring care to other providers, you have encouraged a morally unacceptable option,” McLarren’s letter stated, according to Kaiser Health News.
Centura Health’s director of media relations and public relations, Wendy Forbes, defended the decision.
“As a Christian ministry, Centura Health is firmly committed to providing health services consistent with our mission and core values,” Forbes wrote in a statement provided to Time.
“When the Colorado End-of-Life Options Act was passed, healthcare providers were not required by the act to assist qualified patients. Most hospitals and physicians opted out of the act largely based on the ‘first, do no harm’ part of the Hippocratic Oath. Centura Health opted-out of the act grounded in our commitment to Christian ministry and to unequivocally promote and defend human dignity and the sacredness of every human life, in addition to the violation to the Hippocratic Oath.”
Forbes added that Centura Health believes that “freedom of religion doctrine at the heart of the First Amendment” supports the health system’s right to bar its doctors from taking part in assisted suicide.
The Archdiocese of Denver issued its support for Centura Health amid the legal battle through a spokesperson.
“Asking a Christian hospital to play any role in violating the dignity of human life is asking the Christian hospital to compromise its values and core mission,” archdiocese spokesperson Mark Haas said in a statement given to Kaiser Health News. “This is not the hospital forcing its beliefs upon others, but rather having outside views forced upon it."