Wis. law could push Catholic hospitals to admit abortionists

Doctor with female patient file photo Credit CDC CNA US Catholic News 9 20 12 CDC.

A new abortion restriction in Wisconsin could inadvertently require several Catholic health systems to grant abortion doctors admitting privileges at their hospitals due to a decades-old federal law.

"I don't think too many people thought about that particular aspect," John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, told CNA Aug. 13. "My understanding is that this issue has surfaced in other states."

A recent change in Wisconsin law now requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinics. These privileges would allow a doctor to admit a patient to a hospital in the event of complications.

The new legal provision is part of a recently-passed law that gives a woman who seeks an abortion the right to see an ultrasound. Huebscher said that the Wisconsin Catholic Conference did not address the provision of the law related to admitting privileges, but it had supported the ultrasound-related provision.

Abortion advocacy groups have challenged the new state law on the grounds it would limit abortion access, citing Catholic health care systems' statements that they would not grant privileges to abortionists.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice, defending against this claim, has said that hospitals would be "in active violation of federal law" if they deny admitting privileges to abortionists.

The state justice department in a recent filing in federal court said that under federal law, such as the 1974 Church Amendment, hospitals that accept federal funds "may not discriminate against a physician because that physician has participated in or refused to participate in abortions."

Seven abortion doctors in Wisconsin presently lack the admitting privileges that state law requires. At least four of them are filing for admitting privileges at religiously affiliated hospitals in order to comply with state law.

Citing their Catholic identity, Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, Columbia St. Mary's Health System, and Hospital Sisters Health System initially said they would not grant admitting privileges to abortion doctors at their Wisconsin facilities, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

On Aug. 12, however, Brian Reardon – public relations officer for the Hospital Sisters Health System – told CNA that the system "will comply with both state and federal law with regard to all applications for physicians seeking privileges at our facilities."

Reardon stressed that if a doctor who performs abortions elsewhere were to be granted hospital privileges, Catholic ethical directives for health care services would still apply. These directives bar Catholic hospitals from cooperating in abortions.

Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare's assistant general counsel Matt Moran had said in a statement that the medical staff and hospital board can consider "the mission, values and operational needs of the organization" in deciding whether to grant admitting privileges.

"Requiring certain professional, ethical and character qualifications is recognized by the courts as valid and related to the operation of the hospital," Moran contended, according to the Journal Sentinel.

Columbia St. Mary's Health Care System said Aug. 12 that its admitting privileges are governed by medical staff policy.

"The privileging process is conducted in accordance with ethical guidelines and state and federal law, and requires application, review, medical staff recommendation, and ultimately approval by the board of directors," it stated.

Gretchen Borchelt, senior counsel and director of state reproductive health policy at the pro-abortion National Women's Law Center, told the Journal Sentinel that the Catholic health systems' public declarations of their policies could have consequences. Their statements could be used against them if any abortion providers seeking admitting privileges bring a legal complaint against them.

Huebscher said that a health system's admitting privileges policy is the responsibility of individual Catholic health care systems.

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"A doctor certainly could not use a Catholic facility to perform abortions," he explained. "They would all follow the ethical and religious directives."

He also suggested the Wisconsin controversy could have relevance to similar proposals in other states.

"To the extent that the Church Amendment is federal legislation, governing everywhere, I doubt this situation is limited to Wisconsin," he said.

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