Rules Are for Schmucks: It’s Time to Phase Out Catholic Hospitals

Common decency took another sucker punch from the God industry last month in a case decided in California.

Late in her pregnancy, Rebecca Chamorro and her doctor agreed that immediately after delivering her third child by Caesarian section, her doctor would perform a tubal ligation (more commonly known as “getting your tubes tied”) to prevent her from becoming pregnant again. The fact that she knew in advance she needed a C-section for this birth indicates that any future pregnancies would be riskier than average for her, and three children were as many as she and her husband wanted to raise. Each year, about 700,000 American women make the same choice.

The best and safest medical practice is for the doctor to perform the procedure immediately following delivery. It takes about two extra minutes and avoids the need for separate surgery and anesthetic, both of which always involve some risks. But when Ms. Chamorro’s obstetrician tried to make arrangements for this at the local hospital where she planned to deliver her child, he was told, “Forget it. You cannot do that here.”

Why? Because it’s “intrinsically evil.” That’s what the US Conference of Catholic Bishops calls tubal ligation, and vasectomies for men as well. Basically, anything that might reduce the future number of Catholic customers, they’re against. And Rebecca Chamorro’s local hospital, Mercy Medical Center in Redding, California, is under the thumb of the Catholic Church. It rakes in millions of federal and state tax dollars every year, paid by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, but that doesn’t matter. They do as they please, not what the doctors say, and dare anyone to challenge them.

So Ms. Chamorro had to go across the street to another hospital, right? Wrong. If you’re not up-to-date on your west coast geography, take a look at a map. Redding, California, population 89,000, sits all by itself in the middle of nothing. Mercy Medical Center is not just the only hospital in town; it’s the only hospital for seventy miles. When you’re about to have a baby, picking a hospital seventy miles away is the last thing you want to do.

With the assistance of the ACLU, Ms. Chamorro filed a lawsuit. And she lost. According to the court, the right of hospital administrators to take their orders from the pope trumps Ms. Chamorro’s right to best medical practices. I don’t know what she wound up doing, but my guess is she chose to have her baby in Redding, then incur the unnecessary risk of having the tubal ligation done separately at a later date.

She’s not alone in this. Other women in the Redding area have also been denied facilities for tubal ligations by Mercy Hospital. A poor choice of names, isn’t it? I think “Hardhearted Hospital” might be more apt. In other places, women who actually had choices available have entered hospitals to deliver their babies without knowing about these absurd rules and been stunned when their request for an ordinary medical procedure was turned down once they were already checked in.

Nationally, the Catholic Church controls more than 10 percent of all hospitals, a proportion that has been growing steadily in recent years, while the number of secular nonprofit hospitals has declined. According to the Catholic Health Association, one in every six American hospital patients is now stuck in a place where the pope’s word counts more than their doctor’s.

Popes have a distressing view on healthcare as a whole, not just on contraception. Pope Benedict spoke at length about the “Christian science of suffering” in hospitals, teaching that “Christ did not do away with suffering. He did not even wish to unveil to us entirely the mystery of suffering.” His successor Pope Francis insists that “Christ’s intercession and salvation are more important than healing.” I’m a big healing fan, myself, and if I have to go to a hospital I’d prefer the folks who ultimately run it to share that view.

Last week, talking about religious privileges for pharmacists, I mentioned the hope of treatments deriving from embryonic stem cells, which may become a huge part of medicine in the not-too-distant future. Hundreds of clinical trials of such treatments are underway right now. There’s no such hope for the one in every six patients in Catholic hospitals, though. They, instead, can read a copy of the pope’s teaching on the value of suffering. How about if you want a baby but are having difficulty in conceiving? Forget about getting IVF or similar treatment in a Catholic hospital. The pope doesn’t like that either.

If the church wants to teach that contraception, vasectomy, tube-tying, IVF, abortion even to save the life of the mother, future stem cell treatments, and who knows what else are immoral, that’s fine. Maybe they’re right. But when they prevent one in six hospital patients, who may or may not be Catholic, from getting treatment they want and need, that’s an unacceptable situation.

It would be nice if legal decisions like those in the Chamorro case started going the other way, but that’s not the ultimate answer. If I’m having a medical procedure performed, I don’t want it done in a facility that only does it grudgingly, under court order. I’d prefer a little enthusiasm.

There is no way we can suddenly shut down one sixth of America’s hospital beds. We can, though, start moving in a more rational direction. Five years ago, for example, there was a huge political battle in Montgomery County, Maryland, about whether the lucrative permit for a new up-county hospital would be given to a Catholic outfit or to an Adventist outfit. Both, of course, are religious, but I don’t know of any cases where an Adventist hospital has denied treatment to patients in the same manner as Catholic hospitals do all time. We’ll never know how many political favors were called in or how much money may have changed hands; all we know is that the pope won, and the county residents lost.

The “Law of Holes” teaches that “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” There ought not to be any more Catholic hospitals authorized in America, and the ones we have now should be allowed to fade away.