Religious Liberty and Women’s Health


By Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, Staff Attorney, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project

Last December, doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix saved a young woman’s life. The woman, who was 11 weeks pregnant, was suffering from pulmonary hypertension, a condition that her doctors said carried a near-certain risk of death unless she ended the pregnancy. The nurse who authorized the life-saving abortion, Sister Margaret Mary McBride, a Catholic nun with 34 years experience in health care management, was rewarded with a demotion.

When the Catholic Church, or any other institution, chooses to serve the general public — and to operate an emergency room, no less — it cannot impose its religious principles on its patients to the detriment of the patients’ health. Not only does it violate medical ethics to do so, but federal law requires hospitals to save the life of all patients who come through their emergency room doors. In this case, the correct medical decision was made. But given the repercussions for the nun involved, the next woman at risk might not be so lucky.

No one is suggesting that Catholic hospitals be forced to provide nonemergency abortion services. That is not the issue here. However, it is a tragic fact of life that sometimes a woman suffers a medical complication that puts her pregnancy, and sometimes her own life, at risk. It should go without saying that these women do not deserve to die simply because the nearest hospital is a Catholic one.

Though St. Joseph’s did the right thing for the patient, not all Catholic hospitals do. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in October 2008, describes a number of incidents of miscarriage mismanagement in Catholic-owned hospitals. In perhaps the most glaring example, one doctor described how his patient was septic, with a temperature of 106 degrees, and was bleeding so badly “that the sclera, the white of her eyes, were red, filled with blood,” yet he was not allowed to treat her until the fetal heartbeat stopped (as it inevitably would) of its own accord. Unwilling to continue to practice medicine this way, and risk his patients’ lives, the doctor resigned.

Contrary to what many assume, the ACLU firmly believes in the fundamental right to religious exercise and expression, and we have a long history of defending that right — including on behalf of those with deeply held anti-abortion beliefs. In fact, it is situations like these that have led the ACLU to advocate for laws and policies that respect both individual religious liberty and patient safety and autonomy. The ACLU believes that in a free society, one that protects diverse faiths and beliefs (including no religious belief at all), some level of religious accommodation is often appropriate. For example, an individual pharmacist opposed to contraception should have the option of asking a colleague to fill a valid prescription for birth control; an assistant district attorney opposed to capital punishment should have the option to pass on a death penalty case. But a hospital is never allowed to close its doors, to tie its doctors’ and administrators’ hands, and to allow a woman to bleed out on its floor because it is affiliated with a religion that opposes abortion. We all may not agree about abortion, but we can agree that hospitals that serve the general public should not be permitted, under any circumstances, to violate federal law and deny life-saving care.

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  • chrisrog

    I have been raised as a Roman Catholic, and am disgusted that this so called Bishop had the audacity to excomunicate a woman who saved a life. He is right that two lives were at stake, and either they both could die or one could be saved-what other decision would a compassionate Christian make?  This is not an either or-it was one or none.  While these men continue to abuse children they have the audacity to measure someone else’s faith-what hubrus.  He is not fit to be a priest nor a bishop, he certainly does not understand the faith that I was raised in-we were taught to save lives not sacrifice them.  All Catholics should start such a clamor that Rome gets the point that they will lose American Catholics with a double standard and such an absurd decision by a popus axx that made this dumb decision.  I would put as much credence in it as I would if a Nazi told me that he knew better than I what is right and wrong.  This wonderful nun is blessed in the eyes of Christ-thank goodness there is a much higher power than this silly man.

  • catseye71352

    <… I would put as much credence in it as I would if a Nazi told me that he knew better than I what is right and wrong…>

     

    The current Pope _was_, in fact, a Nazi. 

  • prochoiceferret

    All Catholics should start such a clamor that Rome gets the point that they will lose American Catholics with a double standard and such an absurd decision by a popus axx that made this dumb decision.

    The problem is, Benedict doesn’t care. He doesn’t mind losing Catholics in developed countries, because he still reigns in the developing world.

     

    He’ll moan and lament the secularization of Europe, but he won’t even begin to entertain the notion of modernizing the church to keep in relevant to a modern populace.

  • prochoiceferret

    The current Pope _was_, in fact, a Nazi.

    He was in the Hitler Youth organization, but only because everyone his age back then was required to be in it by law.

     

    There is a lot that is wrong about the man who is the current Pope, but having been an active member and supporter of the Third Reich isn’t part of it.

  • ahunt

    Ohhhh yeah…we gotta be honest. So PCF…would you settle for “the Pope is  a woman hating jerk?”

  • prochoiceferret

    So PCF…would you settle for “the Pope is  a woman hating jerk?”

    Sure, in the same way you could say “Jeffrey Dahmer was a man-eating meanie” ^_^

  • julie-watkins

    More from the article, the case you described:

    yet he was not allowed to treat her until the fetal heartbeat stopped (as it inevitably would) of its own accord. Unwilling to continue to practice medicine this way, and risk his patients’ lives, the doctor resigned.

    The doctor, from what was reported in the article, didn’t accept the hospitals “ethics” committee order to wait. He actively stopped the heatbeat. He rightfully rebelled and caused the fetus to die sooner so he could do what he could to save the woman.

    from the article:

    …This woman is dying before our eyes. I went in to examine her, and I was able to find the umbilical cord through the membranes and just snapped the umbilical cord and so that I could put the ultrasound—‘‘Oh look. No heartbeat. Let’s go.’’ She was so sick she was in the [intensive care unit] for about 10 days and very nearly died. … That’s why I left.