ACLU: Catholic hospitals that deny life-saving abortions violate EMTALA

In the wake of the standoff that led to a Phoenix-based bishop's revoking of St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center's Catholic status, the American Civil Liberties Union is calling on CMS to ensure that Catholic hospitals give emergency reproductive care to pregnant women.

"We continue to applaud St. Joseph's for doing what is right by standing up for women's health and complying with federal law," five ACLU lawyers wrote in a letter sent to CMS on Dec. 22. "But this confrontation never should have happened in the first place because no hospital--religious or otherwise--should be prohibited from saving women's lives and from following federal law."

The letter adds, "Indeed, the Bishop's drastic and heavy-handed actions send a chilling message to Catholic hospitals throughout the country, as well as their employees: If hospitals comply with federal law and provide emergency abortion care, there will be consequences." Hospitals that rely on their local diocese for financing and other resources could suffer, if they follow federal law, the lawyers noted. "The diocese cannot be permitted to dictate who lives and who dies in Catholic-owned hospitals."

The ACLU also asked CMS whether it plans "to take appropriate action" under EMTALA, or the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act.

The letter was a reaction to the case of St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, which lost its Catholic status Tuesday after the head bishop of the local diocese objected to the abortion doctors performed on a woman who was facing a life-threatening complication back in Nov. 2009.

Bishop Thomas Olmsted, who heads the Phoenix diocese, also excommunicated a nun who was a member of the hospital ethics committee, because she consented to a therapeutic abortion to save a 27-year-old woman's life. More recently he had pledged to pull his endorsement from the hospital unless he received a written acknowledgment that the abortion violated Catholic policy and a promise that it would never happen again at St. Joseph's. The hospital would not cave into his demands.

After the bishop's announcement that he had stripped the hospital of its Catholic status, leaders at St. Joesph's said they were saddened, but that nothing operationally would change. St. Joseph's President Linda Hunt summed up the hospital's stance: "Morally, ethically, and legally we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save."

In related news, Catholic United, a Catholic group, KPHO reports, has launched an online letter campaign calling on the bishop to reverse his revocation of the hospital's Catholic identity.

To learn more:
- read St. Joseph's statement
- read the ACLU's letter to CMS
- here is the Washington Post article
- read the KPHO article