Injured - The FindLaw Accident, Injury and Tort Law Blog

Can Religious Hospitals Deny Procedures?

The battle over religious freedom has gone from arts and crafts stores to marijuana churches, and is now spilling over into religious hospitals: a Redding, California woman was denied a medical procedure based on a hospital's religious affiliation.

Is this even legal? If hospitals can deny certain medical procedures, can they refuse to care for certain patients as well?

Denial of Medical Procedures

Mercy Medical Center told Rachel Miller that it would not allow her doctor to perform a tubal ligation (a sterilization procedure known as "tying the tubes") after she is scheduled to give birth at the hospital in late September. The Catholic hospital, owned by Dignity Health in San Francisco, said, "it is not our practice to provide sterilization services at Dignity Health's Catholic facilities."

Mercy quickly changed course in the face of publicity and an impending sex-discrimination lawsuit, but as ACLU attorney Elizabeth Gill noted, Miller "is just one of many women who risk being denied care because Catholic bishops are telling medical professionals how to operate." Mercy's general counsel admitted withholding pregnancy-related care could amount to sex discrimination under California law, but emphasized the hospital would never "violate the (Ethical and Religious Directives) and repudiate (the hospital's) Catholic identity."

Federal and State Hospital Law

So what happens if Mercy, or another one of Dignity Health's catholic hospitals, refuses medical treatment or a procedure based on its religious beliefs? After all, the hospital prohibits abortion, contraception, sterilization for both men and women, and reproductive-assistance technology like in vitro fertilization.

While there are federal laws that require hospitals to provide stabilizing care to anyone determined to have an emergency medical condition, there is no law requiring all medical facilities to provide all medical procedures. As Miller's case demonstrates, it could come down to a state or city's sex discrimination laws to protect patients seeking specific medical services. Considering some 15 percent of hospital services are provided by Catholic institutions and the emergence of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts as a tool to deny services, similar cases are bound to crop up.

If you've been denied medical treatment or a medical procedure, an experienced injury attorney may be able to help.

Related Resources: