Occasionally I have discussions with people about whether it is a such a big deal that Catholic hospitals follow their own set of religiously-inspired directives when treating patients. Shouldn’t a private institution be able to do whatever they want? Isn’t a breach of religious freedom to tell religious organizations how to operate? This is how I respond.
On December 9th, the New York Times Editorial Board summarized the issue regarding Catholic hospitals and standard of care:
Beyond new state efforts to restrict women’s access to proper reproductive health care, another, if quieter, threat is posed by mergers between secular hospitals and Catholic hospitals operating under religious directives from the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops. These directives, which oppose abortions, inevitably collide with a hospital’s duty to provide care to pregnant women in medical distress.
They go on to describe a case from 2010 in which a pregnant woman from Michigan had her water break at 18 weeks. The doctors at the only hospital in her county – a Catholic hospital – did not inform her that her fetus had almost no chance of survival, and that terminating the pregnancy was the safest option. Despite the danger to her life, the woman was sent home twice. The doctors had been following the religious directives of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which apply to all Catholic hospitals in the nation.
Catholic hospitals account for about 15 percent of the nation’s hospital beds and, in many communities, are the only hospital facilities available.
This isn’t the first time that religious directives have conflicted with proper medical treatment in the US or abroad. In 2010, a nun at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix was excommunicated for approving a life-saving abortion for a pregnant mother-of-four. Last year, in Ireland, Savita Halappanavar died of blood poisoning because doctors weren’t permitted to perform the abortion that would save her. In short, Catholic directives require that doctors withhold information or withhold treatment from patients, and the consequences can be tragic.
No hospital should be allowed to operate this way. There are standards of care that healthcare institutions must adhere to, and the ACLU is currently suing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for enforcing directives which contravene those standards. No one knows if they’ll win the suit, but I applaud them for trying. The bishops are right to call this is a matter of religious freedom; specifically, it’s a matter of whether our healthcare system will be free from the bishops’ religion.