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California's Nonprofit Catholic Hospitals Bar Access To Emergency Reproductive Procedures, Abortions

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Some Catholic hospitals, including those in California, are allegedly not abiding by federal laws that require emergency reproductive health care including abortions to be provided to patients, new reports by the American Civil Liberties Union and MergerWatch reveal.

The vast majority of U.S. states allow some hospitals to opt out of performing abortions at their facilities but the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, enacted in 1986, requires anyone who enters a Medicare-participating hospital with an emergency department to be stabilized and treated.

The act has remained an unfunded mandate, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians.

In California and other states, hospitals and clinics run by religious organizations or religious corporations aren't held liable if they refuse to give a woman an abortion or perform other reproductive procedures that are prohibited by Catholic Directives.

The Catholic Directives, written by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, prohibit a range of health care services even when a woman's life or health is in jeopardy, according to the ACLU.

One of the directives states that abortion is never permitted.

The directives, last updated in 2009, also state that, "While there are many acts of varying moral gravity that can be identified as intrinsically evil, in the context of contemporary health care the most pressing concerns are currently abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and direct sterilization."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not immediately respond to CBS San Francisco's request for comment on allegations that some Catholic medical facilities are not abiding by federal laws.

Last month, the California Medical Association (CMA) filed a motion in California court seeking to join a lawsuit that the ACLU filed against San Francisco-based Dignity Health for allegedly refusing to provide a tubal ligation for a woman following her C-section. CMA and ACLU argue that Dignity Health's Mercy Medical Center's refusal to provide tubal ligation based on its religious affiliation breaks state law, which prohibits corporations from making medical decisions for non-medical reasons.

Dignity Health, which until 2012 was named Catholic Healthcare West, is the fifth-largest health system in the nation, operating 39 hospitals across three states - 22 of which are Catholic-based facilities - according to the Dignity Health's website.

When Catholic Healthcare West was renamed Dignity Health in 2012, they announced that their secular hospitals would not restrict sterilization procedures or birth control provisions, but that in-vitro fertilization procedures and abortions would remain in place at these facilities, except in cases where the woman's life is in danger.

Catholic hospitals receive billions in taxpayer dollars, according to the ACLU, which has launched an online petition urging the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to take corrective actions when hospitals and clinics are found in violation of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act.

The new reports by MergerWatch and the ACLU state that in California there are 10,275 Catholic hospital beds, accounting for 15.9 percent of all hospital beds in the state.

In neighboring Oregon and Washington, more than 30 percent of hospitals and acute care beds are in Catholic facilities, according to MergerWatch data.

Patients occupying those beds are not able to receive abortions, tubal ligations (closing a woman's Fallopian tubes) and other reproductive-related procedures, according to the ACLU.

Nationwide, one in six hospital beds is located in a facility that complies with the Catholic Directives.

MergerWatch, a New York-based nonprofit organization, found that the number of acute care hospitals that are Catholic-owned or affiliated in the U.S. grew by 22 percent from 2001 to 2016. During that same 15-year period, the overall number of acute care hospitals dropped by 6 percent.

Ruth Dawson, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California said that a pregnant woman seeking medical care at a hospital needs to be able to trust that decisions about her treatment will be based on medicine, not religious policies.

"In an increasing number of hospitals in California and across the country, that is not the reality. Women are shocked to learn they don't have access to basic healthcare based on religious directives written by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops," Dawson said.

By Hannah Albarazi - Follow her on Twitter: @hannahalbarazi.


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