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Originally published Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Feds asked to ensure Catholic hospitals follow law

The American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday asked federal health officials to ensure that Catholic hospitals provide emergency reproductive care to pregnant women.

The Washington Post

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Wednesday asked federal health officials to ensure that Catholic hospitals provide emergency reproductive care to pregnant women, saying the refusal by religiously affiliated hospitals to provide abortion and other services is an increasing problem.

In a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the ACLU cited the case of St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, which was stripped of its Catholic status Tuesday because doctors performed an abortion on a woman with a life-threatening complication.

"We continue to applaud St. Joseph's for doing what is right by standing up for women's health and complying with federal law," five ACLU attorneys wrote in a letter to Donald Berwick, the CMS administrator, and his deputy. "But this confrontation never should have happened in the first place, because no hospital — religious or otherwise — should be prohibited from saving women's lives and from following federal law."

The letter was a follow-up to a complaint the ACLU sent in July asking for investigation of similar issues at Catholic hospitals across the country, including refusals to provide emergency contraception to rape victims or perform abortions on women having miscarriages.

"The dioceses cannot be permitted to dictate who lives and who dies in Catholic-owned hospitals," the letter states.

The case centers on a woman in her 20s who was 11 weeks' pregnant in November 2009 when she developed severe pulmonary hypertension. Doctors concluded they had to abort the pregnancy to save her life.

When Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Roman Catholic Diocese in Phoenix learned of the abortion in May, he announced that a nun involved in the decision, Sister Margaret McBride, had been excommunicated.

Olmsted cited a directive by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Olmsted followed up that decision with a letter demanding that the hospital take a number of steps to ensure it was complying with church policy, which led to several months of negotiations between the hospital and the diocese.

In announcing the decision Tuesday, Olmsted said that "subsequent communications" with hospital officials "have only eroded my confidence about their commitment to the church's ethical and religious directives for health care. They have not addressed in an adequate manner the scandal caused by the abortion."

Olmsted said he had "recently learned that many other violations ... have been taking place at" facilities operated by Catholic Healthcare West (CHW), which owns St. Joseph's, including provision of birth-control pills and other contraception, sterilizations and abortions "due to the mental or physical health of the mother or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest."

"For seven years now, I have tried to work with CHW and St. Joseph's, and I have hoped and prayed that this day would not come, that this decree would not be needed; however, the faithful of the diocese have a right to know whether institutions of this importance are indeed Catholic in identify and practice," he said.

The 670-bed hospital, established in 1895 by the Sisters of Mercy, does not receive any funding from the diocese and will not change its name. But the decision means it would have to remove the Blessed Sacrament from its chapel and no longer would celebrate Mass there.

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