Durango doctor: Anti-abortion hospital intervening in treatment decisions

ACLU asks state to investigate allegations against Mercy Regional

Durango doctor: Anti-abortion hospital intervening in treatment decisions

A doctor at Catholic-run Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango says Mercy administration forbids doctors from discussing abortion as a treatment, even with women who could die as a result of pregnancy.

Dr. Michael Demos made the statement in a letter of complaint sent by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment this week.

“What we understand to be true and what [Dr. Demos] understands to be true is that, as of right now, a physician at Mercy Regional is absolutely prohibited from mentioning the possibility of terminating a pregnancy under any circumstances, regardless of whether it’s a life-threatening occurrence,” said the ACLU’s John Krieger.

That understanding stems from a meeting last spring between Demos and Chief Medical Officer John Boyd. The two met to discuss the case of a pregnant patient who was initially suspected of having a rare disorder that could be fatal and that was tied to her pregnancy. Demos says he recommended terminating the pregnancy if she had the disease, pursuant with the standard of care, fearing for her life. But the patient did not have the disease and did not terminate the pregnancy, and all went well. She gave birth to a healthy baby without complication. She later complained to Mercy that she had been advised by Demos to have an abortion.

According to the letter, Boyd rebuked Demos, telling him he was not permitted to recommend an abortion or even discuss an abortion with a Mercy Regional patient, regardless of circumstances.

In an April 23 letter to the patient, Boyd said Mercy would “provide education to all our employed providers, reminding them that they should not recommend abortion – even to patients who may have serious illnesses.”

“This [policy] puts doctors in an ethical bind, because they have to decide whether to follow the directives of their hospital or their professional ethical obligations,” Krieger said.

In a prepared statement sent to the Colorado Independent, Mercy said it is “following up directly” with the state health department and that the statements made in the complaint “are based on inaccurate information.” Mercy’s letter said it takes “seriously the care we provide to our patients” and, as a faith-based hospital, “are committed to carrying out our mission and ministry in a manner consistent with our religious and ethical directives.”

If the statements in ACLU’s letter are true, Mercy’s religious directives violate state and federal laws. Colorado forbids hospitals from intervening in a doctor’s professional judgment and hospitals that participate in Medicare and Medicaid are required to fully inform patients of all options. The physician-patient discussion of treatment options, whether the hospital provides abortions or not, are intended to be free of administrative pressure in order to encourage the best possible care.

The ACLU has asked the health department to open an investigation into Mercy’s policies, and “implement all appropriate enforcement activities” allowed by law.

Mercy has caught flack from its Catholic base and pro-life protesters in the last few years for employing an “abortionist” doctor who shared work time between Mercy and a Planned Parenthood clinic. That pressure from the right may explain the administration’s strong embrace in this instance of the anti-abortion directive.

Hospitals in Colorado are part of a national ownership takeover trend by Catholic organizations. Mother Jones reports a 16 percent nationwide increase in Catholic-affiliated hospitals between 2001 and 2011, while public and secular nonprofit hospitals have dropped 31 percent and 12 percent in the same time period respectively. As the Colorado Independent has reported, many patients in Denver-metro-area hospitals are subjected to the Ethical and Religious Directives for services in Catholic hospitals, regardless of their own beliefs.

Options for residents in Durango are limited, as Mercy is the only community hospital in the area.

Hospitals run by the Catholic Church in Colorado have been the subject of national scrutiny this year. Major national organization Catholic Health Initiatives argued in a malpractice suit here that fetuses aren’t people, despite the Church directive that argues the sanctity of life lasts “from the moment of conception until death.”

Now-state Senate President Morgan Carroll introduced a bill in recent years looking to head off the kind of restrictions Catholic administrators might put on patient care in Colorado – not just for reproduction-related policies but end-of-life decisions as well. The bill would have required licensed hospitals to inform patients of services they refused to provide due to “moral convictions based on religious beliefs.” The bill failed to pass.

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About the Author

Shelby Kinney-Lang

Has worked for media nonprofit Free Press and interned at The Nation. He studied at UMass Amherst and at Oxford. He's from Laramie, Wyoming.
skinneylang@coloradoindependent.com | @ShelbKL


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