Can Catholic Hospitals Deny Treatment on Religious Grounds?

Can Catholic Hospitals Deny Treatment on Religious Grounds?


A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that Catholic-run hospitals regularly deny female patients certain reproductive health care options based on religious directives. The report also notes that in some states, 40 percent of all hospital beds are in a facility that complies with Catholic directives on health care.

Denial of certain care options can be life-threatening. So what kind of procedures are Catholic hospitals prohibiting and is it even legal to deny medical care for religious reasons?

Prohibited Medical Procedures

Catholic-run hospitals adhere to a strict set of Ethical and Religious Directives for administering health care. Given the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion and birth control, most of the procedures prohibited in Catholic-run hospitals have to do with termination of pregnancies and sterilization:

  • Tubal Ligation: Some women elect to “get their tubes tied,” and some women, like Jessica Mann, are advised by their OB-GYN that another pregnancy and child birth could be fatal. Either way, tubal ligation is a common form of sterilization most easily and safely performed at the same time as a C-section.
  • Pre-Birth Pregnancy Termination: Tamesha Means’s water broke 18 weeks into her pregnancy, meaning there was virtually no way she could give birth to a healthy baby. Mindy Swank’s water broke at 20 weeks, and testing revealed that the fetus would not survive. In both cases, Catholic-run facilities refused to terminate the pregnancies early (or in Means’s case even acknowledge that it was an option), repeatedly sending them home without treatment, increasing their risk for hemorrhaging and infection.

Catholic hospital directives also prohibit many infertility treatments as well as abortions even when a woman’s life is threatened by the pregnancy.

Legal Liability

Generally speaking, there is no law requiring all medical facilities to provide all medical procedures, and hospitals are only required to provide emergency stabilizing care. In some cases however, there could be state or city sex discrimination laws that protect patients seeking specific medical services. Mercy Hospital in California recently switched its stance on tubal ligation in the face of a sex-discrimination lawsuit.

The ACLU estimates around 15 percent of all hospital services are provided by Catholic institutions. So until there are nationwide regulations on these kinds of procedures, cases of denied medical treatment may need to be handled one by one.

If you’ve been denied medical treatment or a medical procedure, an experienced injury attorney may be able to help.

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