Mich. health system sued for emergency abortion policy

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit against a Catholic health system for what it deemed “repeated and systematic failure to provide women suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions.”

The ACLU accuses Livonia-based Trinity Health Corp. of violating the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, a federal law known as the patient anti-dumping law. It requires hospital emergency rooms to provide patients, irrespective of their insurance, with appropriate medical screening and stabilization care if they believe they are experiencing an emergency health problem.

“We’re taking a stand today to fight for pregnant women who are denied potentially life-saving care because doctors are forced to follow religious directives rather than best medical practices,” said Brooke Tucker, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney, in a statement.

“Catholic bishops are not licensed medical professionals and have no place dictating how doctors practice medicine, especially when it violates federal law.”

In response to the lawsuit, a representative for Trinity Health Corp. said Thursday the case has no merit.

“A federal court already dismissed a similar ACLU claim, and we will seek dismissal of this suit for the same reason,” said Eve Pidgeon, spokeswoman for Trinity Health.

“The Ethical and Religious Directives are entirely consistent with high-quality health care, and our clinicians continue to provide superb care throughout the communities we serve. We are proud that more than 25,000 licensed physicians work directly with our health system and share our commitment to people-centered care.”

In Michigan, Trinity Health operates the Mercy Health system with five hospital campuses, 60 physician offices and more than 1,300 medical staff physicians as well as the Saint Joseph Mercy Health System with six hospitals, six outpatient health centers, seven urgent care facilities and more than 25 specialty centers.

The ACLU said Trinity Health operates under directives that prohibit a doctor working at a Catholic hospital from terminating a woman’s pregnancy, even when the failure to do so puts her health or life at risk.

“A hospital policy like the directives that limit what physicians can tell and offer our patients and prohibits us from providing our patients with the best possible care is extremely dangerous,” said Dr. Timothy Johnson, chairman of OB/GYN at the University of Michigan.

“The ACLU’s suit is based on a simple principle that medical decisions should be between doctors and our patients.”

According to the complaint, the alleged lack of care led to women becoming septic, hemorrhaging, contracting life-threatening infections and suffering pain.

“By adhering to the directives and prohibiting its hospitals and staff from terminating a pregnancy in these or any other circumstances, defendants have denied stabilizing treatment to multiple pregnant women experiencing an emergency medical condition, as defined by EMTALA, solely because that treatment conflicted with the directives,” according to the complaint.

As to Trinity Health’s statement that a federal court had previously dismissed a similar ACLU claim, Tucker said this most recent suit is not similar due to the defendants named in the case. She said in the dismissed case, in which a woman who was sent home twice from Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon after her water broke at 18 weeks of pregnancy, the ACLU was told that it had brought suit against the wrong entity — the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the hospital’s religious board. The lawsuit is currently in the appeal process and the ACLU will pursue Trinity Health directly, Tucker said.

The ACLU also threatened action last month against a Grand Blanc Catholic hospital for refusing a seriously ill woman's request to be sterilized during her scheduled C-section next month.

Genesys Regional Medical Center — part of Ascension Health, the nation’s largest Catholic health system — has refused to allow the obstetrician for Jessica Mann, 33, of Flushing, who has a life-threatening brain tumor and is pregnant, to perform a tubal ligation at the time of the cesarean procedure.

“As a Catholic healthcare system, we follow the ethical and religious directives of the Church," Genesys spokeswoman Cindy Ficorelli said in a statement. "Beyond that, we can't comment on this patient's particular case.”

The Roman Catholic Church bans all forms of birth control including sterilization procedures. Tucker said Genesys previously allowed tubal ligations, but issued a letter formally banning the procedure on Nov. 1, 2014.

Mann, who is 36 weeks pregnant as of Thursday, has given birth to two children at Genesys and was unaware of the ban, Tucker said. Mann’s doctor recommended she have no more children after this pregnancy because of health risks her brain tumor poses.

Tucker said Mann now is forced to find a new physician at another hospital who can take on her complicated medical case, Tucker said.


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