Nearly one-third of Colorado hospitals say they will not allow doctors at their facilities to kill patients under the state’s new physician-assisted suicide law. Recently, two of the state’s largest hospital systems, both faith-based, released statements saying they plan to “opt out” of a state law approved by voters in November legalizing the prescription of life-ending medication to terminally ill patients.
Now that they’ve taken a stand, the hospitals likely will be forced to defend it in court.
The two systems, Centura Health and SCL Health, both associated with Catholic Health Initiatives, say the new Colorado statute contains conscience provisions that protect their right to opt out. But assisted-suicide advocates are pushing back, saying a legal challenge is a “distinct possibility.”
At issue is whether a system of hospitals can dictate for all its facilities and staff how to handle physician-assisted suicide.
“From what we’ve seen, it appears that Centura’s and SCL’s policies go beyond what is allowed under the law,” said Kat West, national director of policy and programs for Compassion & Choices, the country’s largest assisted-suicide advocacy organization, in an interview with STATNews.
But religious liberty experts disagree.
“A hospital that has a physician on staff is responsible for what that physician does,” said Steven H. Aden, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom. The Christian legal organization currently represents a group of Vermont doctors suing state officials for forcing them to counsel patients on physician-assisted suicide.
Aden insisted a hospital system can establish pro-life policy for all its staff, pointing to both constitutional and state-level protections for faith-based providers and hospitals.
The Catholic Church’s strong opposition to assisted suicide is significant, not only because it provides financial support for anti-legalization efforts—the Archdiocese of Denver was the largest donor, at $1.6 million, toward the campaign opposing Colorado’s law—but also because nearly a third of acute care hospital beds in the state are in Catholic-owned or affiliated facilities, according to a 2016 report.
Centura Health is Colorado’s largest hospital system, with 15 hospitals and more than 100 physician practices and clinics. SCL Health is the state’s second largest Catholic system, with seven hospitals and dozens of clinics.
“Centura Health has a long tradition of believing in the sanctity of life, extending compassionate care and relieving suffering. … As permitted by the statute, Centura Health has opted out of participating in the Colorado End-of-Life Options Act,” reads an statement on the system’s website.
SCL Health posted a similar statement: “We believe we can provide compassionate care and comfort to our patients so they can live with dignity until the time of natural death, and we have therefore opted out of participation.” SCL notes that any patient requesting life-ending medication will be offered the opportunity to transfer to another facility.
Colorado became the sixth state in the nation to legalize assisted suicide when nearly 65 percent of voters in November approved the measure allowing terminally ill adults with six months or less to live the right to access a physician-prescribed lethal drug.
The state’s larger cities have several hospital systems that plan to cooperate with the new law, including UCHealth and Kaiser Permanente. But critics say the refusal of Catholic hospitals to participate denies some Colorado citizens in smaller towns access to assisted suicide if they only have one hospital or hospice center available.
Aden maintains the hospitals have a right to their decision and should be protected from requirements to participate in “death dealing” practices: “I think it is one of the most significant religious liberty fights we’ll see in the next 10 or 20 years.”
— by Kiley Crossland