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1 in 6 Hospital Beds Are In Catholic Facilities That Deny Critical Healthcare to Women

A new report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and MergerWatch found that one in six hospital beds in the United States are located in a Catholic facility that denies critical reproductive health care services, even when a patient’s life or health is endangered.

According to the report, Health Care Denied, hundreds of healthcare facilities in the U.S. follow a set of policy guidelines issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Called the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,” these guidelines prohibit basic reproductive health care services for women, including contraception, sterilization and infertility treatments as well as abortion—even when a the patient’s life or health in endangered.

The facilities at issue are sometimes owned by a Catholic health system or diocese, but even other hospitals follow Catholic directives, including hospitals affiliated with a Catholic hospital or system (which may include public hospitals that are managed by Catholic health systems) and historically Catholic hospitals which are currently owned by a secular non-profit or for-profit health care system. In some areas, more than 40 percent of all hospital beds are in a facility that follows Catholic directives, and entire regions have no other option for hospital care, leaving many women without access to essential care.

After her water broke when she was only 18-weeks pregnant, Tamesha Means, who is featured in the ACLU/MergerWatch report, went immediately to the nearest hospital, Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, Michigan. Although it was highly unlikely that Means would deliver a healthy baby, the hospital, operating under the Catholic directives, never discussed with her the option of ending the pregnancy, arguably the safest course of action. Nor did the hospital provide Means with a referral to alternative providers. Instead, Means was sent home with painkillers. Means returned to the hospital the next day showing signs of infection and complaining of bleeding and severe pain; but, according to the report, the hospital sent her home once again. The hospital did not provide care until Means, then in extreme pain, appeared a third time and went into labor. The baby died hours later.

“When a pregnant woman seeks medical care a hospital, she should be able to trust that decisions about her treatment will be based on medicine, not religious policies,” said ACLU Deputy Legal Director Louise Melling. “Distressingly, in an increasing number of hospitals across this country, that is not the reality. We all have a right to our religious beliefs—but that does not include the right to impose those beliefs on others, particularly when that means closing the door on patients seeking medical care.”

The report recommends that the federal government clarify that all hospitals, including religiously affiliated hospitals, are required by federal law to provide emergency reproductive health care. It also recommends that the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services investigate suspected violations of the law and take all necessary corrective action.

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