March 2016 Church & State | People & Events

A California judge has decided that a Catholic hospital did not engage in gender discrimination when it refused to sterilize a patient.

In a January 13 decision, Judge Er­nest Goldsmith of the Superior Court of California for the County of San Francisco said Mercy Medical Center in Redding is not obligated to perform a tubal ligation for Rebecca Chamorro because its religion-based policy would apply equally to a man seeking sterilization. Additionally, Goldsmith said, Cham­or­ro could obtain the procedure at another hospital.

Mercy Medical Center is run by Dignity Health, which operates 39 medical facilities in California, Arizona and Nevada. As a Catholic institution, Dignity claims that performing procedures such as tubal ligations at its hospitals would violate its “religious freedom.”

Catholic hospitals are governed by Ethical and Religious Directives that reflect church dogma. Although the hospitals receive millions in public support through Medicare, Medicaid and other government-run programs, they refuse to provide any health services that conflict with church teaching. The hospitals won’t perform abortions, provide contraceptives, offer in vitro fertilization or perform operations such as tubal ligations and vasectomies. Catholic hospitals also claim the right to ignore a patient’s end-of-life directives if those wishes run afoul of church teachings.

Despite their heavy reliance on public funds, Catholic hospitals insist that they have the right to operate along religious lines.

“The jurisprudence is unequivocal: A Catholic hospital may prohibit sterilization procedures that violate the core principles of the hospital’s faith,” Dignity Health attorneys argued in a court filing.

Chamorro sought to undergo the procedure following her planned Cesarean section on January 28, since she and her husband do not want additional children. Her attorneys, citing established medical opinion, argued that the procedure is safest when done immediately after a woman gives birth. They also pointed out that the closest hospital willing to perform the procedure is 70 miles away from Redding.

The American Civil Liberties Un­ion of Northern California, which represented Chamorro in the Chamorro v. Dignity Health lawsuit, also said Mercy Medical Center had performed a tubal ligation for another woman previously after the group threatened to sue.

The issue goes beyond California. When Catholic hospitals merge with secular health-care providers, as is increasingly common around the country, the church’s restrictive rules are imposed on the non-religious institutions. Patients lose access to necessary services.

Commenting on the church’s medical directives, Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times observed, “These rules were relatively unobjectionable when the typical Catholic hospital might have been a parochial facility concerned mostly with caring for local Catholics or as part of spiritual outreach. But their footprint is much greater now. Catholic healthcare systems receive billions of dollars in state and federal taxpayer funds and dominate some communities’ health landscapes.”