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First, Do No Harm: Catholic Hospitals and the Fight for Reproductive Healthcare

First, Do No Harm: Catholic Hospitals and the Fight for Reproductive Healthcare

February 26, 2018 | One in six hospital beds in the United States is run by the Catholic Church, comprised of 600 hospitals, 200 health centers, and 1,500 specialized care facilities. Most of these institutions provide little to no information about procedures that they refuse to perform. They prohibit procedures like abortion, death with dignity (also known as assisted suicide), and direct sterilization, all under the guise of religious morality. These hospitals and centers often invoke a so-called “conscience clause” that allows them to claim religious objection to specific services condemned by Catholicism. These hospitals are usually funded by the federal government and receive billions in taxpayer dollars, meaning that they should be giving care to every patient as that patient wishes.

However, in many cases these institutions are granted tax and religious exemption status, allowing them to act as private charities and deny essential health care services. These practices of denying healthcare are hardly new, but with Catholic hospitals growing by 22% since 2001, this issue has become dangerous to ignore.

The Trump administration, prompted and pushed by conservative evangelical voices, has attempted to frame this issue as one of religious freedom, ignoring that a healthcare provider's ideology has never been a valid excuse for refusing care. The administration recently finalized regulations to allow Catholic healthcare institutions to deny medical procedures for religious reasons under Title X. Additionally, the administration has been pushing for new “conscience” laws that would limit patients’ and advocates’ ability to protest these denials, protecting the hospitals’ freedom of religion over healthcare needs. This would ensure that any hospital or healthcare provider could refuse care to a patient whose needs go against the provider’s personal religious beliefs. Even more patients will be denied adequate care, even in life threatening situations.

The ACLU released a report in 2016 detailing the heart-wrenching stories of dozens of women who had experienced life threatening pregnancies and who received no reproductive care at the Catholic hospitals that they went to. These pregnant patient’s lives were put in danger because the hospitals would not provide any viable options on the basis of religious and moral aversion. The report found that transgender and gender-non-conforming patients suffered similar harms when seeking reproductive and gender-affirming care at these facilities and were often turned away with nowhere else to go.  

Nationwide, Catholic controlled medical care facilities make up 10% of sole community providers. This means that in many areas a Catholic hospital is someone’s only option when dealing with a life-threatening pregnancy, putting both the parent and child at a huge risk for birth complications, loss of child, and even loss of the patient’s own life. For example, in Washington state almost half of all hospitals are Catholic. In six counties Catholic hospitals are the only facility. A person going into unexpected labor or bleeding from an ectopic pregnancy in these counties will have nowhere to go but a Catholic hospital, and as a result will not have adequate reproductive healthcare. The most absurd part of this is that many of these pregnancies —and every ectopic pregnancy—are nonviable and can be life-threatening to the pregnant women. Additionally, in an emergency patients are transported to the closest hospital and, in many cases, this hospital will be Catholic. By the time a patient gets through to a doctor and is turned away, it could be too late.

Another huge issue is that most people are unaware of is that the hospital they go to is Catholic. In a study published in the journal Contraception, researchers found that almost 40% of women had no idea that their primary hospital was Catholic. In recent years, Catholic run institutions have taken down religious imagery such as crosses and images of Mary and Jesus. These changes have allowed Catholic institutions to become more subtle and underhanded in their branding, so that while their religious attitudes are clear in practice, they are hidden on the surface. Not providing patients with a clear sign of religious affiliation means that people are uninformed and unable to make knowledgeable decisions on where to receive comprehensive medical care.

Groups like the ACLU and NARAL have published reports and personal stories on this issue, bringing much needed attention to the health care and human rights violations being carried out at Catholic hospitals. These organizations are committed to changing the laws that protect these institutions, and to bringing justice to the people impacted by these policies. These efforts are crucial for restoring and protecting the rights of patients, but activists are facing an uphill battle. Without institutional and legislative support, reproductive rights will continue to be denied and patients will face the consequences of religious monopoly.

Access to healthcare is a human rights issue. When women and trans patients are not able to get the care they want or need, it undermines all of human rights in a country. Medical professionals take an oath to serve people who are sick, and this oath does not include a caveat based on the doctor or institution’s personal religious beliefs. Everyone who goes to a hospital when their life is in danger should be able to trust that their doctor will do everything possible to save their life, whether or not it conflicts with the doctor’s personal conscience or the conscience of the institution that employs them. No pregnant patient should die because they were taken to the wrong hospital.

Tamar Shuhendler is a graduate from Lewis & Clark College's international affairs program.

The views expressed in this piece do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.

Photo from Fshoq with a CC BY 4.0 license.

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