Healthy Choices

ACLU presses legal fight with Dignity Health over contraceptive surgery

A San Francisco Superior Court judge this week rejected the ACLU’s motion for an emergency order against Dignity Health, in a case that highlights the continuing conflict over a woman’s right to reproductive health care within a Catholic hospital setting.

The case is brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Rebecca Chamorro, a married mother of two who is scheduled to deliver her third child by cesarean section later this month. As a permanent form of birth control, Chamorro and her husband want a tubal ligation immediately after delivery.

Their request, made in consultation with Chamorro’s Redding-area obstetrician, was turned down by Mercy Medical Center in Redding because of church doctrines that prohibit sterilization.

The ACLU said Wednesday that it will file a request for a preliminary injunction with hopes that the court will hold another hearing next week and allow the procedure in time for Chamorro’s scheduled C-section on Jan. 28.

Elizabeth Gill, ACLU of Northern California senior staff attorney, said that regardless of whether the new motion is heard, the lawsuit will proceed.

“It’s not ideal. Our client could deliver any day. ... But there are still physicians who want to provide tubal ligations at Dignity Health hospitals and are being told they cannot do so.”

In an emailed statement, Dignity Health officials said, “We are pleased by the court’s decision to deny the ACLU’s request for the (temporary restraining order) which will allow Dignity Health to continue to operate consistent with the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.”

Those directives, spelled out in a 2009 document by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, state that contraceptive procedures such as vasectomies and tubal ligations are “intrinsically immoral” and should not be allowed in Catholic-affiliated hospitals. The exception, Dignity officials say, is when sterilization is necessary to cure or alleviate “a present and serious pathology and a simpler treatment is not available.”

Dignity officials have noted that when its hospitals do not offer a requested medical service, physicians can make arrangements at another facility. In Chamorro’s case, the closest non-Catholic hospital providing maternity care is about 70 miles away.

In court filings on Tuesday, the San Francisco attorney representing Dignity Health objected to the ACLU’s request for an injunction, listing numerous statements as “hearsay,” “improper opinion” or “lacks foundation.”

In its lawsuit, the ACLU argues that the Redding hospital’s denial of Chamorro’s request amounts to sex discrimination and interferes with the doctor-patient relationship.

Chamorro has not been available to comment on the lawsuit. Gill said she is on bed rest until her scheduled delivery at Mercy Medical Center.

Physicians for Reproductive Health, a nationwide group of doctors who advocate for better access to women’s health care, have joined the case as a second plaintiff. Chamorro’s doctor, Dr. Samuel Van Kirk, is a member. In addition to Chamorro, he has had at least two other requests to perform a tubal ligation during a C-section turned down by Mercy Medical Center. In one instance, the hospital relented and allowed the patient to have her tubes tied after Van Kirk submitted additional information about her condition.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck