Originally published in the spring 2018 Torch 


When Susan was three months into her first pregnancy, her doctor delivered the kind of news every expectant mother hopes never to hear. Her fetus had stopped developing and her pregnancy was no longer viable. Facing an inevitable miscarriage, she made the difficult decision to terminate her pregnancy to ensure the healthiest and safest outcome. Susan felt the hope and happiness she felt only moments before fade into terrible sadness.

And yet the worst was not over.

In the midst of grieving, her doctor informed her that he would not be able to perform the procedure she needed at the Catholic hospital where he had admitting privileges. He would have to treat her at a different building because the hospital had religious objections to the very care she required.

“This sounded so mean to me,” said Susan. “I was in mourning that my pregnancy was ending and I wasn’t even allowed to have the hospital staff wrap their arms around me and finalize a procedure that I had hoped I would never need.”
 
That was over 30 years ago. Susan was already a doctor herself and living in Los Angeles. But she still carries the pain of rejection with her after all this time.
 
 “As a physician, it is unthinkable to me that a qualified medical provider would ever be prohibited by an institution from providing the standard of care that patients need,” said Susan. “It is so hurtful to have hospitals say that if you need a specific type of procedure, they will decide if they accept you into the sanctuary where those who need healthcare are protected and supported.”
 
Susan experienced this rejection because the hospital followed the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which are promulgated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Directives prohibit a range of reproductive health services, including contraception, sterilization, many infertility treatments, and abortion, even when a woman’s life or health is jeopardized by a pregnancy. 
 
 “I truly felt betrayed and abandoned by the hospital,” said Susan. “It’s the job of the hospital to protect you -- emotionally and physically.”
 

 “I truly felt betrayed and abandoned by the hospital,” said Susan. “It’s the job of the hospital to protect you -- emotionally and physically.”

Susan’s pain is made worse by the reality that others continue to be subjected to denials of care -- across the country and here in New Mexico where she lives and works as a pediatrician.
 
It’s difficult to know how many women in New Mexico have endured similar experiences because of the deeply traumatic and personal nature of their rejection. Not everyone would feel comfortable sharing such a story publicly. But the ACLU of New Mexico has heard of a religiously affiliated hospital in New Mexico turning women away in the midst of miscarriage, rather than allowing their doctors to provide the care they need.
 
The ACLU national office has also documented a number of similar cases across the United States. Women who were in the midst of miscarriage and were denied emergency care by Catholic hospitals in Illinois, Michigan, and Washington shared their personal stories in our report, “Health Care Denied.” The women who were turned away experienced a range of negative outcomes, including emotional trauma, severe pain, bleeding, and life-threatening infections as a result.
 
Doctors at Catholic hospitals who were prohibited from treating patients as well as doctors at secular hospitals who treated very sick patients after they were denied care at Catholic facilities also shared their accounts. One doctor, working at a hospital in New England, recalled treating a pregnant woman experiencing preterm premature rupture of membranes (PROM) at 17 weeks. Even though the pregnancy was not viable and the patient was getting sicker, the hospital would not allow the doctor to perform an abortion.
 
Over the next day, the woman’s temperature rose to 104 degrees before the doctor was able to transfer her to a hospital to save her life.
 

Religion Over Health in Trump’s Administration 

Sadly, the Trump administration recently took measures to make it easier for hospitals to deny care to women experiencing miscarriage, even when denying that care threatens their lives. These measures may also lead to increased denials of care for LGBTQ people, the children of same-sex couples, people seeking sterilization, and others.
 
In February, the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department announced the creation of a new “Conscience and Religious Freedom” division in the HHS Office for Civil Rights. The new division will not focus on protecting patients’ health or rights, but will instead protect hospitals, other health care institutions, and individuals that refuse to provide medical care to patients based on religious or moral objections.
 
The Trump administration also released a massive set of new proposed regulations that would reinstate and broaden a George W. Bush-era regulation that sought to significantly expand the ability of hospitals and other health care providers to withhold from patients treatment, counseling, or even referrals based on their own religious or moral beliefs.
 
When announcing these new measures, the administration made no mention of the harmful consequences that will result for patients. They will undoubtedly have the disastrous effect of emboldening religious refusals that threaten patients’ health and dignity.
 
The new federal office and proposed regulations present especially grave dangers to people who live in rural areas. A survey by Forward Together recently found that nearly 40% of people living in rural New Mexico already face serious challenges in accessing healthcare due to lack of providers, healthcare costs, and transportation difficulties. People who live in Northern New Mexico are also vulnerable to increased  difficulties in accessing the care they need. For certain types of care, the only available hospital is a religiously-affiliated Catholic hospital in Santa Fe.
 
The new division flies in the face of the HHS’ mission to “enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans.”  Turning the Office of Civil Rights into an agency tasked with upholding discriminatory denials of care to women, same-sex couples, and transgender people in the name of religious liberty is a cynical distortion of the Office’s true purpose.
 
Every person should be able to expect and receive access to healthcare without discrimination or fear that the religious beliefs of medical providers and institutions may endanger their health and well-being.
 

Taking a Stand 

Freedom of religion is a core Constitutional right. But that freedom does not give anyone a right to harm or discriminate against others, including by way of denying a patient necessary health care. The ACLU of New Mexico is especially concerned about the severe implications of being refused medical treatment, but we are dedicated to fighting instances of discrimination in all settings.
 
Thanks to a generous grant awarded by the Proteus Fund, we are working with our partners at Young Women United (YWU), the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and New Mexico Dream Team to push back against harmful religiously motivated discrimination in our state. Through our collaborative work, we will continue to learn about individual experiences and raise awareness of the harm that comes when religion is used to discriminate. Together, we are working to foster a thriving culture inclusive of all faiths and all people regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, or race.
 
If you or anyone you know has been refused healthcare or any kind of services because of another institution or person’s religious beliefs, we want to hear about it. We are collecting accounts to help our advocacy initiatives and in some cases, to pursue legal action.  We treat your information as confidential and will not publicize your story without permission.
 
Together, we can make New Mexico the truly inclusive state we want it to be.
 
Visit www.aclu-nm.org/submitacomplaint to share your account with us.

 

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