Religious freedom in the United States means that we all have a right to our own religious beliefs – including the right to have none. But this freedom does not give us the right to use religion to discriminate against and impose those beliefs on others who do not share them.
Unfortunately, individuals, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and other health care entities continue to use religion as an excuse to deny communities and families basic information and care related to reproductive health, including contraception and abortion, as well as end-of-life care and LGBTQ+ care. In the wake of the Dobbs decision, a troubling pattern is emerging – the coordinated spread of misinformation about health care denials by the anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ movements, especially in places like New Mexico where we have strong protections in place.
Even more worrisome is the trend of out-of-state, religiously affiliated systems of care, with highly restrictive policies that are contrary to best medical practices, taking over locally owned and operated health care facilities. This is a practice the ACLU has monitored for decades. It can limit access to health care, impact care quality and boost costs for patients and their families.
"Not only are patients directly impacted by these restrictions, but highly trained and willing health care workers at these institutions risk losing their jobs..."
Today, at least one in seven hospital beds around the country are in hospitals that impose religious restrictions on individual care – whether or not you are a member of that religion. Here at home, after negotiations behind closed doors with very little transparency, the Catholic-affiliated CHRISTUS Health acquired Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center (GCRMC) in Alamogordo.
GCRMC is the largest hospital in the region and the only level III trauma center serving Otero County and residents of surrounding areas, Holloman Air Force Base service members and their families, the Mescalero Apache Reservation, and incarcerated individuals in the prison and jails in the region. GCRMC also manages numerous on and off-site clinics. We and our partners support local community leaders who are deeply worried about how this acquisition will restrict access to basic health care for Otero County residents.
Catholic-affiliated hospitals like CHRISTUS follow the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. The Directives prohibit a range of reproductive health services, including contraception, sterilization, many infertility treatments, abortion (even when a patient’s health or life is jeopardized by a pregnancy) and routinely deny care to LGBTQ+ individuals. They also restrict access to end-of-life health services, counseling and referrals – sometimes even refusing to follow a patient’s advanced health care directive.
U.S. bishops have also begun a process that will explicitly lead to a ban on provision of any form of gender affirming care in Catholic hospitals, formalizing an already routine practice of denying access to this necessary care.
Not only are patients directly impacted by these restrictions, but highly trained and willing health care workers at these institutions risk losing their jobs just for using evidence-based medicine and professional judgment to offer patients the best possible care. The Directives can also limit the rights and benefits of employees while they’re working and even during their off hours.
“Our communities and families deserve access to high-quality and comprehensive health care, regardless of who or where they are.”
Patients might not be aware of the religious affiliation of their local clinic or hospital, especially in an emergency, or might not know the care they need could be denied in the name of religion. And frankly, they might not have any other option in a rural state like ours. If denied care, it might be impossible to get to another health care provider, particularly in those rural areas. And it may be just as hard to find a provider that takes their insurance.
Our communities and families deserve access to high-quality and comprehensive health care, regardless of who or where they are. The ACLU of New Mexico is working to ensure that no patient is refused access to information and health care because of the religious doctrines of the institutions running hospitals, clinics or other medical facilities – especially institutions that receive taxpayer funding. Someone else’s religious ideology should not dictate a patient’s ability to get information about their medical condition, treatment options or the care they need. All New Mexicans deserve lives of safety and dignity, free from discrimination or abuse.