1989 DES Case: Brownfield v. Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital

Must a Catholic hospital inform a rape victim of the availability of the “morning-after pill” ?


The California Court of Appeals discussed in Brownfield v. Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital, 256 Cal. Rptr. (1989), whether a health-care giver must inform a patient of medical options that the care-giver morally opposes.

In this case, workers in a Catholic hospital refused to inform a rape victim about the “morning-after pill” (diethylstilbestrol) despite the victim’s mother requesting the information, the possibility of a pregnancy, and the need for treatment within 72 hours, because such information conflicted with the institutions’ religious beliefs.

The plaintiff did not become pregnant, and the court dismissed the case because there was no compensable injury; the plaintiff did not appeal the dismissal. The court agreed with the plaintiff that the “morning-after pill” is postcoital contraception (like the IUD), not an abortifacient, since the fertilized ovum has not yet become implanted in the uterine mucosa (nidation).

In reviewing the California Therapeutic Abortion Act the court said that while religious facilities need not perform abortions, the statute does not apply to medical emergencies or spontaneous abortions. The court stated that a patient has the right to self-determination in his or her treatment, superseding the moral and religious convictions of the hospital, and that medical malpractice would exist in cases where “damages have proximately resulted from the failure to provide [a patient] with information concerning…treatment option[s],” when “a skilled practitioner of good standing would have provided her with information…under similar circumstances,” and “that if such information had been provided to her, she would have elected such treatment.”

The court found no duty to provide non emergency treatment, only a duty to inform the patient about treatment options.


  • Must a Catholic hospital inform a rape victim of the availability of the “morning-after pill”?, American journal of hospital pharmacy, NCBI PubMed PMID: 2309736, 1990 Feb.
  • Image credit Online Archive of California.

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