Oct 25, 2011

Should public hospitals have to comply with the doctrinal mandates of the Roman Catholic hierarchy?

Most Americans would say “no” – and a pretty darn emphatic “no!” at that.

But University Hospital in Louisville, Ky., seems headed in that direction. As we reported earlier, the hospital, affiliated with the University of Louisville, is planning to merge with Jewish Hospital & St. Mary’s HealthCare and the St. Joseph Health System in Lexington.

After the merger, all the facilities will come under the control of the Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives – with Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz getting final say on the arrangements. The combined hospital systems would operate in compliance with the bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives.

That means strict limits on birth control, sterilizations and other reproductive care as well as restrictions on patients’ end-of-life directives that don’t comply with church doctrines.

Needless to say, this merger has been controversial in Kentucky.

In response, University Hospital officials are desperately trying to put the best face on this constitutionally dubious scheme. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, they have now issued a statement saying the hospital  “will not be required to follow” the directives but will agree by contract not to perform three church-forbidden procedures — elective sterilizations, elective abortions and euthanasia.

Reporter Patrick Howington says that is a much narrower stance on the Catholic directives than officials had expressed earlier.

“In previous statements,” said the Courier-Journal, “officials have said all the merging hospitals would ‘adhere to,’ ‘honor, or would be ‘abiding by’ the directives, not just some of them.”

Civil liberties experts are not impressed with the semantic change.

Ayesha N. Khan, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the newspaper the move seems like an effort “to make this (merger) more politically palatable” and maybe set up a legal defense in the event of a likely lawsuit.

“They’re trying to make the change in services a little less extreme,” she said. “But it doesn’t sound to me like it changes the bottom line — which is that they are shaping at least some of their services around Catholic ideology.”

William Sharp of the Kentucky ACLU agreed, telling the newspaper that the changed description “may amount to a distinction without a difference.”

The merger can’t go through without the approval of Gov. Steve Beshear. Attorney General Jack Conway and other state officials are reportedly researching the constitutionality of the plan.

Here’s hoping these elected officials remember the health-care needs of all Kentuckians and the principle of church-state separation when they make their decision.