The XX Factor

Pregnant Women and Equal Emergency Room Rights

Unsurprisingly, Rachael , I’m going to disagree strongly with you on whether or not the ACLU is in the wrong to fight the Catholic Church when it requires hospitals to let patients die rather than perform abortions. The right to determine what services you provide is an important one, but there’s already an established pattern in the United States that puts the right of citizens to equal treatment above the right of institutions to discriminate. And just as I reject the argument that a lunch counter should be able to refuse to serve black customers because their private beliefs are racist, I believe the Catholic Church cannot force hospitals to refuse to treat pregnant women because they hold misogynist beliefs that women’s role as vessels matters more than their rights as individual human beings.

When you have an emergency situation with a pregnancy that requires that you get an abortion or you’ll die or be crippled for life, your right to protect yourself shouldn’t be constrained because of religious dogma.  As you note in your post, one-third of hospitals in this country are Catholic, which means that if Catholic hospitals set aside pregnant women as a class who don’t deserve equal access to life-saving treatment, then that means many women will have no other options.  With emergency abortions, speed is often necessary to prevent death or dismemberment.  If you live in an area with hospitals that don’t practice discrimination against pregnant patients, you can often put a patient in an ambulance and pray that she gets her abortion before the stroke or infection sets in from her rapidly deteriorating pregnancy, but if there’s not one nearby, the stark choice between letting a woman (and her fetus) die or only letting the fetus die becomes your responsibility.  When you’re facing that choice–or even the choice to risk a woman’s life by delaying treatment–what some piddling Catholic clergy who have never had to face life-threatening medical situations think shouldn’t matter.

The ACLU isn’t trying to force health care providers to offer elective abortions. They are simply saying that our country has laws that say emergency rooms cannot discriminate based on race, sexual orientation, or citizenship status when you have an emergency, nor should they be able to discriminate based on gender or pregnancy status.  In this case, refusing treatment would have not only killed the woman in question, but it would have left her four children without a mother.  As the ACLU blogged here , another case involved a doctor being forbidden from operating on a woman whose fetus was dying and whose septic miscarriage was so bad “that the sclera, the white of her eyes, were red, filled with blood.” The ACLU protects the right of misogynist pharmacists to refuse to handle icky birth control pills, and of doctors in general to not have to provide abortion if they wish.  But I agree that they should stand for the American practice of requiring emergency rooms to treat all patients as equally deserving of the right to emergency medical treatment, and that includes pregnant women whose pregnancies are threatening their lives or health.

Here’s an interesting example from Peru of what happens when a fetus has more rights than a woman who needs emergency medical care: lifelong paralysis for her, and no baby in the end.  Because the brutal fact of the matter is that even if you view women as merely vessels, if the vessels don’t have good health of their own, they’re not going to produce good babies.