State agency won't act on Mercy abortion policy

ACLU wanted probe of doctor's conversation with patient

DENVER - The state health department will not pursue a complaint against Mercy Regional Medical Center for its admonishment of a doctor who recommended a patient consider an abortion.

The American Civil Liberties Union asked for an investigation last November after hospital officials warned Dr. Michael Demos, a cardiologist, about his conversation with a patient about abortion in 2012.

Mercy is a Catholic Health Initiatives hospital, and it takes direction from church teachings against abortion. The ACLU complained that Mercy officials violated state laws that allow doctors to exercise their professional judgment.

But the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment investigated the charge and decided not to sanction Mercy because Demos practices in a hospital clinic, not the hospital itself.

"The clinic where the event occurred is not licensed by the department, and is not under its jurisdiction, therefore no deficient practice was cited," said the letter, which was signed by Judy Hughes of the health department's Health Facilities and Emergency Medical Services Division.

The letter was brief, just four sentences. It stated the health department had conducted an investigation under its authority to regulate hospitals.

Demos' clinic is in an office building attached to Mercy and owned by Centura Health, which also operates Mercy. The hospital is owned by Catholic Health Initiatives.

Randy Kuykendall, director of the state Health Facilities division, was not available to comment Thursday afternoon. A spokeswoman said no one else at the department could answer questions about the investigation Thursday.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, said the state's decision does not resolve the dispute about Mercy's policy, which he believes violates state and federal law.

"Until Dr. Demos hears differently from the hospital, he remains in an unacceptable bind where he must choose between obeying the directive that was conveyed to him by the administrators last year and his medical and ethical obligations to his patients," Silverstein said in an email.

However, Mercy spokesman David Bruzzese said Mercy does not prevent its doctors from discussing medical options with their patients.

"Patients and our employed physicians are free to use all information in the medical literature to make appropriate medical decisions," Bruzzese said.

But it's not consistent with Catholic ethical directives to recommend an abortion, he said.

In early 2012, Demos treated an unnamed pregnant woman with a family history of Marfan syndrome, a disorder of the connective tissue. Women with severe cases of the syndrome can die during childbirth. For some Marfan patients, medical guidelines recommend terminating the pregnancy.

Demos' patient turned out not to have the disorder. She gave birth, and more than a year later, she complained to hospital administrators that it was improper that Demos recommended an abortion.

The ACLU complaint cited a letter from Dr. Kip Boyd, Mercy's chief medical officer, to the patient, promising to "provide education to all our employed providers, reminding them that they should not recommend abortion - even to patients who may have serious illnesses."

As a Catholic hospital, Mercy follows the Ethical and Religious Directives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those rules forbid even tangential association with the practice of abortion.