New Report Documenting Abortion Bans in Protestant & Secular Hospitals in the U.S. South

The Law, Rights & Religion Project
November 16, 2021

November 16, 2021

Elizabeth Reiner Platt,

New York, NY–Hospitals across the U.S. South strictly regulate the provision of abortion, leading to delays and denials of care for patients facing severe pregnancy complications according to a new report released today by Columbia Law School’s Law, Rights, and Religion Project (LRRP) in partnership with investigative reporter Amy Littlefield. While such restrictions at Catholic hospitals are well known, the report breaks new ground in uncovering abortion policies at Protestant and secular—including public—facilities. With abortion rights now directly at risk, as the Supreme Court hears a case challenging Roe v. Wade on December 1, hospital abortion bans could have an even more severe impact on patients. If abortion clinics are forced to shutter, patients—including those in crisis—will be subject not only to restrictive laws, but also policies limiting emergency abortion care at their local hospital.
Titled “The Southern Hospitals Report: Faith, Culture, and Abortion Bans in the U.S. South,” the report contains four key findings:

     1. Strict limits on abortion care are ubiquitous at Baptist hospitals in the South and are common at other Protestant-affiliated facilities. While all health systems in theory allow abortion when necessary to save the life of a patient, how this exception is interpreted and applied in practice varies widely, resulting in patients being transferred to other facilities or denied care during medical emergencies;

     2. While Protestant hospitals are typically no longer owned by religious institutions, they are not religious "in name only," as some advocates and doctors initially suggested to us. Rather, these systems have retained important connections to their founding denominations, typically through rules allowing religious groups to nominate or approve members of their boards of trustees;

     3. Abortion bans have also been instated at many public hospitals in the South, due to a variety of factors including legal prohibitions, anti-choice boards or administrators, fear of losing public or private funding, or community pressure;

     4. Many hospitals use termination of pregnancy committees or boards to evaluate patients and determine whether a doctor can perform a medically indicated abortion in the facility. Some committees at religious health systems include faith leaders. Such committees were common in the pre-Roe era.

The report contains numerous firsthand accounts from doctors of the impact of abortion restrictions on patients. Among many stories, doctors explained how abortion bans limited their ability to care for patients experiencing early miscarriage, kidney disease, cervical cancer, leukemia, and serious fetal anomalies.
Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of the Law, Rights, and Religion Project stated: “Having researched this report for over two years, I still find our results shocking—in particular, that at some hospitals decisions about emergency medical care are made by pastors and lawyers rather than by treating physicians. Not only are pregnant patients being denied the medical standard of care, they are being denied the right to make informed decisions about their treatment based on their own religious and moral values.”
“The Southern Hospitals Report provides rigorous evidence of what we suspected: faith-based limits on access to reproductive health care are not only an issue at Catholic hospitals, but at Protestant-affiliated hospitals in the U.S. South as well,” said Professor Katherine Franke, Faculty Director of the Law, Rights, and Religion Project.  “Even more alarming are our findings that religious restrictions on health care have become the standard of care in many secular hospitals in the South," continued Franke.

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