Where “First, Do No Harm” Is Secondary: The Threat of Catholic Hospitals to Women’s Health

Many Americans, at least those fortunate enough to have access to insurance, tend to view healthcare as a private matter between themselves and their doctors. Unfortunately, for an increasing number of women, healthcare is becoming a matter between themselves, their doctors, and the Catholic bishops who make decisions about what methods of care doctors may provide. As hospitals across the country continue to consolidate in an attempt to gain more bargaining power with insurance companies, many secular facilities have been taken over by Catholic ones. The quality of care these Catholic hospitals provide, however, is often subpar, especially in their disregard for the health and lives of women suffering from pregnancy complications.

Humanists are already all too familiar with the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception and abortion. What they may not know is that this opposition extends to the provision of women’s healthcare in Catholic-run hospitals. Most secular hospitals don’t perform abortions as a routine part of women’s healthcare, but doctors will induce abortion if doing so protects the health and life of a pregnant patient experiencing extreme complications. For instance, in cases of ectopic pregnancies, in which the embryo attaches to the fallopian tube instead of the uterus, the fallopian tube will rupture, putting the woman at risk of internal bleed and death, unless the pregnancy is terminated. In such instances, most physicians recommend inducing an abortion as the most efficient, least invasive, and least complicated means of treating the woman. According to the National Women’s Law Center, however, some doctors in Catholic hospitals reported seeing near-fatal fallopian tube ruptures in women, who then required surgery and the possible removal of their fallopian tubes, because the hospital directives didn’t permit doctors to induce abortions.

Similarly, for women experiencing miscarriages, doctors may administer abortion procedures to ensure that all embryonic tissue is expelled completely from a woman’s uterus, which prevents infection and other complications. In many Catholic hospitals, however, doctors are only given the option to observe the patient. They must wait until the woman experiences life-threatening infections, such as sepsis (a bacterial infection in the bloodstream), before they can provide treatment. Many Catholic hospitals also refuse to stock contraception, dissuade doctors from informing patients about contraceptives, and won’t administer emergency contraception to rape victims. Moreover, many Catholic hospitals won’t provide certain types of infertility treatments, won’t perform tubal ligations or vasectomies, and won’t respect patients’ wishes regarding end-of-life care.

In these instances, many patients don’t even know that there are other, more effective forms of treatment available to them or that their care is being compromised, as doctors cannot even inform them of the full range of healthcare options available to them. For many patients, however, knowledge of other options isn’t helpful. According to the watchdog group MergerWatch, in ten states, over a third of hospitals are Catholic. This means that women, especially poor women and rural women, may not have the option of journeying to secular hospitals to receive treatment, and in cases of ectopic pregnancies or miscarriages, women might require treatment immediately and not have time to travel to hospitals that will provide more comprehensive care. Some doctors and other healthcare providers have bravely provided necessary abortion care to patients, even though doing so violates the Catholic hospitals’ code of ethics, putting them at risk of losing their jobs or being investigated by their hospitals’ ethics committees.

Clearly, in instances of reproductive healthcare, many Catholic hospitals are doing more harm than good. Instead of prioritizing the lives, health and wellbeing of the patients in their care, they adhere to dangerous religious dogma that endangers the lives of women. Fortunately, MergerWatch and the American Civil Liberties Union are fighting against these practices. MergerWatch is currently calling for more government oversight and regulation of hospital mergers, and they also educate staff at secular hospitals undergoing mergers with Catholic hospitals about ways in which they can preserve healthcare providers’ autonomy in doing what’s best for patients, even if it violates Catholic doctrine. They’re also working to educate the public about problems faced by women who receive inadequate care in Catholic medical facilities.

The ACLU is taking an even more aggressive approach to fighting Catholic hospitals. It’s currently suing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf of a woman who was denied proper care during a miscarriage. The ACLU also threatened to sue a Catholic hospital group in California on behalf of a woman who was denied a tubal ligation. In response to the threat, the hospital permitted the woman’s doctor to perform a tubal ligation, though whether this individual instance will affect the treatment of other women at the hospital who wish to undergo similar procedures remains to be seen.

Humanists have long fought against religious impositions on women’s reproductive rights, and opposing the harm that Catholic hospitals do to women in their care is a natural extension of this concern for access to abortion and contraception. Furthermore, by allowing their doctrine to dictate what women and men may or may not do with their own bodies, Catholic hospitals are denying their patients autonomy and human dignity, values that humanists put before any religious dogma. If you’re concerned about a secular hospital in your community merging with a Catholic hospital system, you can contact MergerWatch for assistance, and you can also support the American Civil Liberty Union’s efforts to raise awareness among legislators about the damage done to women’s health by Catholic hospitals.

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