WASHINGTON -- A Catholic hospital on Monday reversed its decision to deny a pregnant woman post-birth sterilization after the ACLU threatened to sue, illustrating the reproductive health conflicts arising at religiously-affiliated hospitals across the country.
Mercy Medical Center is owned by the San Francisco-based Dignity Health, California's largest private health care network and the fifth-largest in the nation. In April, the hospital said it wouldn't allow patient Rachel Miller to receive a tubal ligation after her caesarean section, which is set to take place next month. The hospital cited the church's Ethical and Religious Directives, which prohibit "inherently evil" reproductive health care procedures like sterilization.
Miller, an attorney who lives in Redding, California, teamed up with the ACLU to protest the decision, which the hospital had communicated to her doctor. The ACLU argued in a letter to Dignity Health that the hospital was discriminating on the basis of sex by denying Miller a tubal ligation, and elevating "theological tenets over patient health."
On Tuesday, the civil liberties group said it was happy with the hospital's reversal, but there needs to be a broader policy change.
"While we’re grateful Mercy Medical has agreed to provide medical care in this instance for Ms. Miller, the reality remains that there is a clear conflict between the best interests of patients and the directives of the Catholic hospital system,” said Elizabeth Gill, senior attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “Religious institutions that provide services to the general public should not be allowed to hold religion as an excuse to discriminate or deny important health care. With Catholic hospitals increasingly prevalent, including as the only option for some women, Rachel is just one of many women who risk being denied care, because Catholic bishops are telling medical professionals how to operate.”
There are no other hospitals within a 70-mile radius of Miller's home that have birthing facilities and that are not Catholic-affiliated, according to an ACLU press release. Miller’s insurance company offered to cover her delivery at the UC Davis Medical Center 160 miles away in Sacramento, where she could have also gotten a tubal ligation, but now she won't need to travel that far.
“This is a decision that I made with my family and my doctor and no one else should be involved in that process,” Miller said. “I hope my case will shine a light on this issue so that others aren’t turned away. No one should be denied medical care their doctor recommends.”
Direct Health's general counsel told Gill the ACLU's sex discrimination claim was unfounded, because the hospitals’ policy against sterilization applies to both men and women. The network argued that Miller's request didn't meet its sterilization policy, which comes directly from the Catholic church and only permits procedures to cure or alleviate "a present and serious pathology" when "a simpler treatment is not available."
Asked whether the decision to allow Miller to get a tubal ligation would apply to future cases, a hospital spokeswoman wrote in an email to HuffPost that it "has always and will continue" to operate according to the Catholic church's directives.
"What we can share is that in general, it is our practice not to provide sterilization services at Dignity Health’s Catholic facilities in accordance with the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERDs) and the medical staff bylaws," the statement read. "As such, tubal ligations are not performed in Catholic hospitals except on a case-by-case basis where a formal review by a committee of physicians and others gives permission to perform the procedure."
About 600,000 women in the U.S. undergo a tubal ligation every year, according to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. ACOG has said that the procedure should be considered "urgent" medical care because it's a safe and highly effective way to prevent future pregnancies. Medical professionals tend to agree that it's most convenient to perform the procedure immediately after a woman gives birth so she doesn't have to undergo a separate, invasive procedure later on.
The ACLU has targeted Catholic health institutions before for not informing patients in dire medical circumstances that abortion was an option, or for telling doctors they may not discuss abortion with their patients. Health care providers and reproductive rights advocates have increasingly expressed concerns about the practices and procedures of Catholic hospitals, which provide 15 percent of the nation's hospital beds.