National Institutes of Health, Bill Branson
Source: National Institutes of Health, Bill Branson

Another pregnancy could kill her, but her hospital won’t help.

Jessica Mann, a 33-year-old Michigan woman currently carrying her third child, suffers from brain tumors, and doctors have told her that any future pregnancy would be extremely dangerous, even potentially fatal. Since she’s scheduled for a C-section in just a few weeks, she informed her doctor that she wants a tubal ligation performed at the same time. This routine sterilization procedure would solve the problem. 

But Mann's simple request turned out to be not so simple. Her delivery is taking place at a Catholic hospital, the Genesys Regional Medical Center in Grand Blanc, and she was informed that the hospital's religious guidelines forbid such sterilizations. Mann has had to hire attorneys to pursue her right to the medically necessary procedure.

In a society where claims of “religious freedom” increasingly seem to justify refusing to do one’s job (Kentucky clerk Kim Davis being the poster child for such claims), the possibility of getting blindsided by a religiously motivated doctor, hospital, or even pharmacist is more realistic than ever. You want birth control? Sorry, that's against my religion. 

There ought to be a law, shouldn’t there? Well, American Atheists thinks so. The New Jersey-based group has launched a campaign to pass legislation that it calls a “Patients Right To Know Act,” which would require medical providers refusing to provide certain services on religious grounds to inform patients in writing, listing all services that are not being made available on such grounds. The act would also require health providers to inform insurers of such religiously motivated restrictions on their practices, so insurers can pass on the information to consumers. The full draft of the proposed legislation is here.

“Patients must be able to make fully informed decisions about their health care,” said Amanda Knief, author of the proposed bill and spokesperson for the group. “This legislation would help patients get the information they need to navigate the increasingly complicated—and increasingly religious—health care marketplace.”

Knief told me the group will start meeting with federal lawmakers next week to discuss the proposal, and plans are in the works to present the bill to state legislators around the country as well. She says American Atheists will work with local activists and other groups who support the proposal.

Many Americans would no doubt prefer a health care delivery system that doesn’t allow providers to deny care that is considered medically necessary or in the interest of public health. A customer who wants birth control, for example, is seeking a product that indisputably benefits public health, and requiring a retailer to simply sell the product would in no way deny anyone the right to practice his or her Catholicism or any other religion. The fact that religious activists have succeeded in creating such "religious freedom" exemptions shows how they have redefined the public policy debate in America.

That being the case, it’s possible that requiring health care providers to at least disclose their religious biases is the best protection the public may have.

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