WASHINGTON -- The House is scheduled to vote this week on a new bill that would allow federally-funded hospitals that oppose abortions to refuse to perform the procedure, even in cases where a woman would die without it.
Under current law, every hospital that receives Medicare or Medicaid money is legally required to provide emergency care to any patient in need, regardless of his or her financial situation. If a hospital is unable to provide what the patient needs -- including a life-saving abortion -- it has to transfer the patient to a hospital that can.
Under H.R. 358, dubbed the "Protect Life Act" and sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), hospitals that don't want to provide abortions could refuse to do so, even for a pregnant woman with a life-threatening complication that requires a doctor terminate her pregnancy. This provision would apply to the more than 600 Catholic hospitals governed by the Catholic Health Association, which are regulated by bishops and prohibited from performing abortions.
"Unfortunately in the Catholic system, someone who's a bishop, who has no medical qualifications whatsoever, can dictate what a hospital does," said Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. "And bishops have a mindset that's absolutely obsessed with sexual and reproductive health, especially on the issue of abortion, so the Diocese is throwing everything into backing this."
In late 2009, an Arizona bishop excommunicated Sister Margaret McBride, a senior administrator at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, because she authorized an abortion for a woman who was 11 weeks pregnant and suffering from a potentially fatal case of pulmonary hypertension.
"In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother's life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy," the hospital said in a statement.
The Diocese of Phoenix sharply condemned the hospital's decision to abort the baby, saying in a statement that the mother's life should never take precedence over the baby's.
"An unborn child is not a disease," said Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted, the bishop of Phoenix. "While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother's life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means."
A spokesperson for Catholic Healthcare West, which owns St. Joseph's in Phoenix, said the Protect Life Act would not change anything about its current policy, which is to provide abortions only for women whose lives are in danger. But other Catholic hospitals reserve the right to opt out of providing them, depending on the discretion of the bishops that preside over them.
In addition to changing the rules for hospitals, H.R. 358 would deny federal funding to any health care plan that includes abortion coverage, something that might cause insurance providers to stop covering abortions.
"During the debate over Obamacare, the president promised that no taxpayer dollars would be used to pay for abortions under the bill," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said at a voters' summit last week. “Unfortunately, this is not the way things played out."
"We will bring to the floor a bill to ensure that no taxpayer dollars flow to health care plans that cover abortion and no health care worker has to participate in abortions against their will," he said.
The Hyde amendment, which has been in place for 30 years, already bans taxpayer dollars from being spent on abortions and allows anti-abortion doctors to opt out of performing them.
Health advocates worry that the new law would only increase financial and logistic barriers for women who require abortions to save their lives.
"This is just a demolition derby for women's health care," said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president for communications at Planned Parenthood. "To first say, 'We won't even treat you if you show up needing a life-saving abortion,' and then to eliminate health insurance that might have saved your family from bankruptcy is a real one-two gut punch to women in these tough economic times."