Medical Emergency: Catholic-Public Hospital Mergers Can Mean Loss Of Services

People should be able to access medical care without interference from religious groups.

There has been a lot of talk about medical care lately, especially in light of the House of Representatives’ recent vote to repeal the health care plan. Americans United doesn’t take a stand on that law, but there are aspects of this discussion that are of interest to our organization.

One thing we firmly believe is that people should be able to access medical care without interference from religious groups. In some parts of the country, this is becoming difficult to do – especially when public hospitals and Roman Catholic hospitals merge. When this happens, church officials demand that the public hospital adopt a series of rules that reflect Catholic dogma.

The Ethical and Religious Directives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ban all abortions, for any reason. They ban the distribution of birth control. Sterilizing operations are forbidden, and a patient’s end-of-life decisions can be overridden if they conflict with church doctrine.

Yesterday, this controversy hit home for many of us at Americans United. The Maryland Health Care Commission voted unanimously to allow a Catholic hospital called Holy Cross to build a new facility in northern Montgomery County. The commission made this vote even though another hospital run by a group affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventists had proposed building a facility that would offer the full range of reproductive care.

Several people on the AU staff (me among them) live in Montgomery County. We were shocked by this decision. Our county, which is largely affluent, progressive and well educated, will be given a new hospital that doesn’t provide complete reproductive health care. I don’t believe most county residents support this.

AU Field Director Beth Corbin was at the commission meeting yesterday. For months, Beth has worked with women’s groups and the reproductive rights community to persuade the commission to back the Adventist option.

After the vote, Corbin told The Washington Post that the fight isn’t over. Legal action is being considered.

Americans United, The Post noted, “was among several advocacy groups that filed a lawsuit under similar circumstances in Florida a decade ago over the operation of a public hospital under Catholic religious doctrines. The case was settled out of court; the hospital no longer operates under Catholic directives.” (See more about that case here.)

The Post noted in a Jan. 19 story that this issue is sparking controversy all over the country. In a case from Arizona, Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix stripped St. Joseph’s Hospital of its Catholic affiliation after doctors performed an abortion to save a woman’s life.

In Oregon, a Catholic hospital lost its religious affiliation after doctors said they would refuse to stop performing tubal ligations on women who requested them.

I’m glad medical professionals at those hospitals stood up to church authorities, but many others simply buckle under and discontinue the services. This happens even though Catholic hospitals often receive public support. The new hospital in Montgomery County, for example, is being built on county-owned land.

What’s especially frustrating about this is that the people being denied these services – rape victims, poor women, those facing terminal illness – are already in exceedingly difficult positions. Instead of getting the services they need, they end up surrounded by inflexible church teachings.

There is a better way: If a church hospital wants public funds and support, it should be required to stop imposing its dogma on those in need.