Access denied: Catholic code is sacking reproductive care for women, says ACLU

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Doctors sent Tamesha Means home from Mercy Hospital in Michigan when she started to miscarry at 18 weeks, despite knowing her baby wouldn’t survive. She went to the hospital three times within 48 hours but wouldn’t be admitted until she was officially in labor. 

Throughout the 48 hours, Means bled profusely and developed a fever and infection which put her life in extreme danger.

The baby died a few hours after birth.

Mercy Hospital submits to the Catholic code of ethics, so even though doctors knew immediately that the baby would die and that Means could too, the hospital wouldn’t provide the emergency services that would have spared both Means and her child the pain and suffering that they endured.

The Catholic health system receives billions of dollars in Medicare funding each year – a study by ProPublica found that in Catholic hospitals received $115 billion in federal aid in 2011 – which means that they are required to adhere to the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act and provide emergency care.

A rule they violated when they refused to treat Means.

There are 548 acute care hospitals in the U.S. that follow the Catholic healthcare doctrine, and in some states, nearly 40 percent of hospitals are part of the Catholic network, according to a 2016 report by the American Civil Liberties Union.

That means there are entire regions in the U.S. where the only option for a healthcare provider is tied to a religious system.

More than 10 percent of all hospital beds in Maryland are in Catholic health centers.

Catholic hospitals – despite the Medicare funding they receive – do not offer the following services:

  • Contraception
    • Restricted from all patients, although 98 percent of Catholic women used contraceptives during sex.
    • Catholic health centers will not provide services like vasectomies or tubal ligation.
  • Abortion
    • Prohibited, even for women with life-threatening pregnancies.
  • In vitro fertilization 
    • Doctors are not allowed to help a couple conceive unless it involves a married man and woman having sex, which can have a disproportionate impact on LGBTQ couples.
  • End of life care
    • Catholic hospitals can force patients to accept feeding tubes against their will.
    • Doctors are not allowed to ease the process of dying.

These restrictions could impact access to healthcare in certain communities, especially in poorer and more rural areas, since Catholic providers are often the only option available in the region. 

If the only hospital within 200 miles of your house is a Catholic center and you’re miscarrying at 20 weeks, then you don’t really have much of an option.

While Catholic systems accept Medicare funding and partner with independent healthcare networks – which follow the Catholic code of ethics once they’ve partnered with a religious health center – they are limiting what kind of care women can receive at their most vulnerable.

“This is really about the hospital interrupting the doctor-patient relationship,” Elizabeth Gill, an attorney for the ACLU, told MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry.

The Catholic church can also change their directive at any time to be more restrictive, which could leave families with even fewer options.

Often times, patients and doctors are not aware of these restrictions until they are faced with a problem, which means a doctor might tell a patient they will do a procedure – only to find the hospital tying their hands in the operating room.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of gynecologists working in Catholic hospitals have had at least one conflict with their hospital over religious restrictions.

Americans’ rights to make personal reproductive decisions have been affirmed by the Supreme Court, but legal affirmation means nothing without practical access.

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