The "Protect Life Act": Allowing Hospitals to Ignore Women


Primary Content

On Wednesday, February 9, the Energy and Commerce Committee will hear testimony on Rep. Joe Pitts\' "Protect Life Act" (H.R. 358). The Pitts bill would prevent women from using their own money to buy abortion coverage, effectively stripping millions of women of the abortion coverage that they already have.

It would allow hospitals to refuse women life-saving treatment—all in the name of preventing a woman from obtaining a legal and safe abortion.

Read more about the Pitts bill:

New Abortion Ban Bill Would Deny Abortion Coverage to Millions of Women and Allow Healthcare Providers to Deny Life-Saving Care to Women in Emergencies >,


Healthcare Refusal Laws: Background Information
NHeLP (National Health Law Program), Health Care Refusals:  Undermining Quality Care for Women (2010)  

This comprehensive guide explains how healthcare refusal laws that permit healthcare providers and institutions to refuse to provide medical services based on religious or personal objections violate patient rights and undermine established medical standards.

General Accounting Office, Emergency Care:  EMTALA Implementation and Enforcement Issues (June 22, 2001) 

This publication, prepared by the U.S. Government’s General Accounting Office, details the important role that the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) plays in preventing patient dumping – the previously common practice of hospitals not to treat the uninsured and poor.  The study also examines some of the difficulties in enforcing EMTALA.


Examples of Catholic Hospitals\' Refusal to Permit Life-Saving Abortions for Women

Lori R. Freedman et al., When There’s a Heartbeat:  Miscarriage Management in Catholic-Owned Hospitals, 98 Am. J. Pub. Health 1774 (Oct. 2008) 

This peer-reviewed article carefully documents numerous instances in which Catholic hospitals jeopardized their patients’ lives by refusing to conduct life-saving, medically necessary abortions.  In one instance, a 14-week pregnant woman with ruptured membranes was forced by the Catholic Hospital to travel 90 miles to receive a life-saving abortion, in another instance, Catholic hospital administrators refused to perform life-saving treatment on a dying woman, nearly resulting in her death.

Barbara Bradley Haggerty, Nun Excommunicated For Allowing Abortion, Nat’l Pub. Radio (May 19, 2010)

This short NPR news item describes the decision of a Catholic hospital administrator, Sister Margaret McBride, to permit a pregnant patient to receive an abortion after doctors determined that if she continued with the pregnancy, her risk of death was “close to 100 percent.”  Sister McBride was excoriated by church officials and later excommunicated by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted.

Nancy Northup, Should Church Control Access to Health Care, Wash. Post. (June 21, 2010)

In this Washington Post op-ed, Center President Nancy Northup analyzes the Catholic Church’s decision to excommunicate and demote Sister Margaret McBride, the Saint Joseph’s Hospital administrator who authorized a medically necessary, life-saving abortion.

Catholic Bishops Prefer Women's Deaths to Life-Saving Abortions: In Their Own Words

Fr. John Ehrich, Catholic Morality and Pregnant Mothers Who are at Risk (2010) 

Father John Ehrich, the Medical Ethics Director for the Diocese of Phoenix, defends the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion in all cases.  Ehrich flatly states that abortion “can never be justified under any circumstance,” including situations that threaten the pregnant woman’s life, or in cases of rape or incest.  In Ehrich’s view, pregnant women should embrace death rather than “hav[ing] to live the rest of her existence knowing that she had [an abortion].”

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, Statement in Response to Abortion Performed at St. Joseph’s Hospital (May 15, 2010), and St. Joseph’s Statement

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix, issued this statement criticizing St. Joseph’s Hospital for conducting a medically necessary abortion to save a woman’s life.  According to Bishop Olmsted, abortion is “always immoral, no matter the circumstances, and it cannot be permitted in any institution that claims to be authentically Catholic.”

In response, St. Joseph’s Hospital wrote that the decision to perform a life-saving abortion was the most “life-affirming” option available, and that the decision was made in consultation with the patient, her family, her physicians, and the hospital’s ethics committee, including Sister Margaret McBride, the hospital administrator who was eventually excommunicated by Bishop Olmsted.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, St. Joseph’s Hospital is No Longer Catholic (Dec. 21, 2010)

In this statement, Bishop Olmsted refers to St. Joseph’s Hospital’s approval of a life-saving abortion as “cooperation in evil that must be corrected.”  Bishop Olmsted revoked the hospital’s Catholic affiliation and even prohibited the celebration of Mass at the hospital.  While the bishop’s issuance of canonical sanctions is his prerogative, the sanctions will likely have a real effect on patient care at Catholic hospitals nationwide – it is now clear that Catholic hospitals that permit life-saving abortions – necessary to prevent a woman from dying – will face expulsion from the Catholic Church.

The Extreme Anti-Choice Position of Catholic Bishops is Out of Line with Mainstream America and Mainstream Catholics

Letter from Jon O’Brien, President, Catholics for Choice, to the United States Congress (Jan. 28, 2011)

This letter to Congress explains that the extreme anti-abortion position of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops not only is out of step with nearly 90 percent of Americans of all religious backgrounds, but that it is rejected by 85 percent of Catholic voters.

Ethicists Fault Bishop’s Action in Phoenix Abortion Case, Nat’l Catholic Rep. (June 8, 2010)

This article, published in a prominent Catholic publication, reveals that numerous ethicists and Catholic theologians sharply disagree with Bishop Olmsted’s holding that a life-saving abortion necessarily violates Catholic teaching.

Additional Web Resources

Ibis Reproductive Health for the National Women’s Law Center, Assessing Hospital Policies and Practices Regarding Ectopic Pregnancies and Miscarriage Management (2011)

This study documents how hospitals’ religious restrictions adversely affect pregnant patients by denying them access to complete information about their treatment options, denying them adequate treatment, and denying them access to adequate emergency care.

Letter from the ACLU to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (July 1, 2010)

In this letter, the American Civil Liberties Union asks the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services to require religiously affiliated hospitals to provide patients with emergency reproductive care as required by the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) and the Conditions of Participation of Medicare and Medicaid.

Laura MacCleery, Access to Abortion Already Imperiled for Those Who Need it Most, The Hill’s Congress Blog (Dec. 16, 2009)

The Center’s Director of Government Relations, Laura MacCleery, recounts the true story of a Louisiana woman, “Stacy,” who was diagnosed with an advanced cancer after she became pregnant.  Stacy couldn’t be treated for her cancer while she was pregnant, and, though she classified herself as generally “pro life,” decided to have an abortion to save her life.  Louisiana’s laws and policies thwarted her at every turn – only the courageous act of one doctor to perform the necessary abortion allowed her to have life-saving treatment.  The article explains how so-called “conscience protections” serve to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for women to access medically necessary, life-saving abortions.