The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Trinity Health saying the Catholic system violates the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act by refusing to terminate pregnancies for women suffering life-threatening complications.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Detroit. Trinity Health, which operates 86 hospitals in 21 states, is one of the largest Catholic healthcare providers in the U.S.
The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act states that an emergency department “must stabilize any individual determined to have a medical emergency.”
The ACLU argues in its complaint that Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity Health fails to protect pregnant women in emergency situations in order to abide by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services, a doctrine by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The directives prohibit Catholic health facilities from performing abortions.
Severe blood loss and other complications, the ACLU argues, may require terminating the pregnancy to protect the woman's health.
“They do not get an exception to federal law,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney at ACLU. “They need to provide women the same care that they would get in any other emergency department and there is no exception under EMTALA.”
In a statement to Modern Healthcare, Trinity Health countered that the Ethical and Religious Directives do not prevent its hospitals from providing adequate care to pregnant women.
“This case has no merit," Trinity said in the statement. "The Ethical and Religious Directives are entirely consistent with high-quality healthcare, and our clinicians continue to provide superb care throughout the communities we serve.”
Catholic Health Association CEO Sister Carol Keehan said in a prepared statement to Modern Healthcare that it is “irresponsible” for the ACLU to assert Catholic hospitals' maternity service is unsafe for women and “disrespectful” to physicians who are ensuring patients remain safe.
Keehan said in the aftermath of emergency pregnancy complications, parents want to be sure all was done to protect their child.
“This is not a simple clinical situation that you 'take care of' and then move on,” Keehan said. “Anyone who has ever cared for these parents knows that this will always be the child they lost.”
Leonard Nelson, a healthcare law expert and professor emeritus at Samford University, said an important part of being a Catholic hospital is complying with the Ethical and Religious Directives.
“What (the ACLU) is trying to do is force Catholic hospitals to relax their rules,” Nelson said. “They would like Catholic hospitals to not have any particular religious orientation, especially when it comes to abortions.”
Art Caplan, the head of the division of medical ethics at New York University's Langone Medical Center, said ACLU has merit in its argument because growing Catholic health systems are federally funded.
“There are more and more hospitals that have a Catholic association because more hospitals are merging,” Caplan said. “It also means there are also fewer options for patients to go to an emergency room without an affiliation.”
Trinity noted that a federal court dismissed a similar ACLU claim in 2013.