In its ongoing dispute with Catholic hospital officials in Redding, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Dignity Health, contending the hospital system is unlawfully denying women’s rights to contraception.
The suit is filed on behalf of Physicians for Reproductive Health and a Redding woman, Rebecca Chamorro, who requested a tubal ligation at Mercy Medical Center in Redding during her scheduled cesarean section in late January. Chamorro and her husband, who have two other children, want the procedure as a permanent form of contraception.
“The overarching issue is about women’s ability to access basic health care. It’s an incredibly common procedure used by a significant number of married women, but it’s being denied based on religious doctrine. It’s a real problem,” said Elizabeth Gill, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.
Chamorro, 33, did not respond to a request for an interview. She is one of three Redding women who contacted the ACLU after their doctor denied a request for a post-partum tubal ligation at Mercy Medical Center. In all three cases, the nearest hospital providing maternity services and covered by their insurance is out of town, from 70 to 160 miles away.
The three women are patients of Dr. Samuel Van Kirk, an obstetrician-gynecologist who practices in Redding and delivers babies at Mercy Medical Center. He was not available for interviews.
Physicians for Reproductive Health, a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit, is a nationwide nonprofit that advocates for access to maternal care, including contraception. It has about 1,200 physician members in California.
In the lawsuit, Van Kirk states that 50 of his patients in the last eight years have been denied permission for post-partum tubal ligations at Mercy because of the hospital’s allegiance to Catholic doctrine.
In an emailed response, San Francisco-based Dignity Health officials declined to discuss the pending litigation, but issued a statement: “In general, it is our practice not to provide sterilization services at Dignity Health’s Catholic facilities,” in accordance with guidelines issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which state that Catholic health care organizations are not permitted to engage in actions that are “intrinsically immoral,” including sterilization for men (vasectomies) or women (tubal ligations).
However, the statement noted that Dignity’s non-Catholic hospitals, including Methodist Hospital of Sacramento, Sierra Nevada Memorial in Grass Valley and Woodland Healthcare in Woodland, abide by more general guidelines, which do not specifically cover tubal ligations but oppose abortions and in-vitro fertilizations.
Sterilizations, however, are permitted when “their direct effect is the cure or alleviation of a present and serious pathology and a simpler treatment is not available.”
Dr. Pratima Gupta, a Bay Area obstetrician and a spokeswoman for Physicians for Reproductive Health, said she was “both surprised and disappointed that (Dignity Health) would deny a woman pregnancy-related care. It demonstrates sex discrimination and provides poor quality of care.”
Gupta, who said she’s performed thousands of baby deliveries and hundreds of tubal ligations, said the procedure is safe and should not be denied to women who choose it.
“Health decisions should be made between a woman and her family and her doctor,” Gupta said.
In an earlier case, Redding resident Rachel Miller also was denied permission to have a tubal ligation at Mercy Medical. After the ACLU threatened a lawsuit on her behalf in August, Mercy officials re-reviewed her case and allowed her tubal ligation to proceed. The procedure took place in September, when Smith gave birth to her second daughter.
In Miller’s case, the hospital said it changed its mind after her doctor provided additional clinical information that fit with its criteria to allow tubal ligations to protect patients from future risk of pregnancies.
In a recent interview with The Sacramento Bee, Miller said having her “tubes tied” was “100 percent” the right choice for her family.
Like Miller, Chamorro wants her tubal ligation done in the hospital during her scheduled C-section to save the time, cost and potential trauma of a second surgery. In a tubal ligation, a woman’s fallopian tubes are closed off, preventing her eggs from reaching the uterus. It’s considered more cost-effective to do the procedure after a C-section, when a woman’s abdomen is open and she’s under anesthesia. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecology, tubal ligations are used by roughly a third of U.S. women using contraception.
A hearing is scheduled Jan. 5 in San Francisco Superior Court on the ACLU’s request for an emergency order allowing Chamorro to have her tubes tied. The Redding mother’s C-section is scheduled about three weeks later, on Jan. 28.
Editor’s note: This story was changed Dec. 30 to correct the identification of ACLU of Northern California senior staff attorney Elizabeth Gill. The story was changed Jan. 25, 2016, to reflect that Dr. Samuel Van Kirk is not a member of Physicians for Reproductive Health.