The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is pressing the government to investigate if women who are in need of emergency reproductive health care are not receiving proper treatment at hospitals owned by religious institutions.
Writing to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the ACLU expressed concern that the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) and the Conditions of Participation of Medicare and Medicaid (COP) are not being observed by religious hospitals because of doctrinal teachings on abortion.
"Religiously affiliated hospitals are not exempt from complying with these laws, and cannot invoke their religious status to jeopardize the health and lives of pregnant women seeking medical care," they said.
The group highlighted a November 2009 case in Phoenix, Ariz. where a pregnant woman with a life-threatening blood pressure condition was admitted to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center.
Although the hospital's ethics board approved the abortion of the 11-week-old fetus in order to save the woman's life, a nun on the board was reprimanded by local bishops who said that abortions are never allowed in Catholic health facilities, even to save the life of the woman.
The ACLU said that the nun's treatment sends a message to other religious hospital employees that they risk punishment if they provide such services to pregnant women in the future.
"Catholic hospitals operate 15% of the hospital beds in the country, and are often the only hospital in a particular community, and therefore the only place where a woman can obtain care," the group wrote. "As a result, many pregnant women who seek emergency reproductive health care in Catholic hospitals do not share the religious beliefs of the hospital, and may not receive appropriate medical care."
The group further cited findings in a recent article in the American Journal of Public Health which detailed less successful treatments of pregnant women at Catholic health facilities, such a woman in the Northeastern U.S. who was miscarrying at 19 weeks of pregnancy.
In that situation, the hospital's ethics committee prevented doctors from aborting the fetus until its heart had stopped beating, even though the woman had a condition that caused excessive internal bleeding. Subsequently, the woman developed pulmonary disease after being in the Intensive Care Unit for ten days.
"As these examples illustrate, there are a number of Catholic-owned hospitals that fail to provide proper care to patients in violation of the COP and EMTALA," the group wrote.
"If stabilizing the patient means terminating the pregnancy, as it will for many of these cases, then the hospital must do so," they continued.
"There is no basis for a hospital to impose its own religious criteria on a patient to deny her emergency medical care."