The Legal Lies We Tell Pregnant Women

Shayna Shor, Policy Research Intern

On Tuesday, June 26 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), which are fake women’s health clinics that offer false and misleading information on abortion, contraception, and pregnancy to further an anti-choice agenda, are protected under free speech laws. The case, NIFLA v Becerra, dealt with a California law, which stated CPCs had to post information on free and low cost sexual and reproductive health services in the state, including abortion, and how individuals could apply for those benefits. A sign would also have to be posted that no licensed medical care was offered inside of a CPC if no medical providers were on staff. The California law was intended to connect women to affordable and accurate medical services, regardless of their income or social status, as well as making sure clients of CPCs were aware what services would and would not be offered at that center. Many times it’s hard to distinguish a CPC from a legitimate clinic because of deceptive tactics like fake medical release forms, individuals in white coats walking around, and their locations which tend to be near legitimate reproductive health clinics.

CPCs exist all over our state, but there is another barrier for women trying to access their highest standard of reproductive health care: the ERDs. The Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs) are a set of guidelines Catholic hospitals must follow which prohibit providers at these institutions from providing services such as contraceptives, sterilization, some treatments for ectopic pregnancy, abortion, and fertility services. Providers at Catholic hospitals must follow the ERDs, regardless of their patients’ wishes, the urgency of the medical condition, or the health professionals’ medical opinion. Many times, health professionals at these hospitals offer no referrals to clinic or centers where patients could receive the reproductive and sexual healthcare they want and need.

Tamesha Means was 18 weeks pregnant when her water broke. She rushed to her local hospital in Muskegon, Michigan, unaware that her hospital had a Catholic affiliation. Even though she was in excruciating pain, the hospital gave Tamesha Tylenol and sent her home even though her pregnancy had little chance of surviving and posed significant risk to her health. Only after Tamesha came back to the hospital for the third time and started delivering in the middle of the waiting room, did she begin to receive care for her miscarriage, even though she was already in distress and had developed an infection. She delivered a baby who died a few hours later.

Tamesha’s story is not unique; with the ERDs taking precedent over medical knowledge, women’s sexual and reproductive healthcare is at risk. According to a 2016 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, 1 in 6 hospital beds in the United States are subject to Catholic restrictions. Because Maryland has no publicly funded hospitals, the Catholic hospitals, Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring and Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, see a large percentage of low income individuals, who have a heavier burden when it comes to paying for medical care.

Catholic hospitals also serve high percentages of people of color, especially pregnant women of color. In Maryland, three quarters (75%) of births to women of color occur at Catholic hospitals, while less than half (48%) occur at non-Catholic hospitals; Black women had over 3,000 more births at Catholic hospitals than white women, even though Black women had 10,000 less births overall. This means that more women of color are under the rule of the ERDs and their restrictive, unsafe medical guidelines. These numbers are especially troubling given the multitude of health disparities facing women of color in this country, especially surrounding pregnancy.

CPCs and Catholic medical institutions should not be legally allowed to lie to women about their sexual and reproductive health and delay their care. If an institution is not going to perform a medical procedure, like termination of an ectopic pregnancy, they should have to refer that patient to proper care. Women should be made aware of the ERDs and how they impact their medical care, as well as whether the care they’re receiving is actually coming from a licensed medical professional. Someone’s financial status or race should not determine the quality of healthcare they receive. Women in Maryland deserve the truth about their sexual and reproductive health; their lives depend on it.

The political leader of the pro-choice movement in Maryland.

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