June 30, 2022

Catholic hospitals attacked for denying patients abortion and assisted suicide

If they get federal funding, why shouldn’t they provide legal services?

The Catholic hospital system in the United States is growing rapidly at a time when other types of non-profit hospitals are declining. A 2013 report from MergerWatch claimed that between 2001 and 2011, the number of Catholic-sponsored or–affiliated acute-care hospitals increased by 16%. In 2011, 10 of the 25 largest health systems in the nation were Catholic sponsored;  one in nine beds was in a Catholic–sponsored or affiliated hospital.

But Catholic hospitals refuse to do abortions or to participate in assisted suicide or euthanasia. There are growing rumblings that federally-funded hospitals should not be allowed to deny patients legal procedures.

In Michigan the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is demanding that a Catholic hospital carry out a sterilization request for Jessica Mann, a pregnant woman with a brain tumour.

“Although everyone has a right to practice their religion as they see fit, religion cannot be used to harm others, which is what is happening here,” said Brooke Tucker, of the ACLU. “Jessica Mann and every person who goes into the hospital seeking medical care should not have to worry that religious beliefs rather than medical judgment will dictate what care they receive.”

And the ACLU is also suing Trinity Health Corporation – a Michigan-based major Catholic provider –for prohibiting abortions, tubal ligations, and the prescription of contraceptives in its hospitals. The ACLU has based its suit on what it sees as a “repeated and systematic failure to provide women suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law”.  

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan agrees with the ACLU claim. He says: 

“…Catholic hospitals are not private entities. They took in $115 billion in 2011 alone from Medicare and Medicaid. They also get tax exemptions and other public money… Hospitals awash in public funds are duty bound to follow the law not religious directives.”

But Trinity Health spokeswoman Eve Pidgeon said there was no tension between Trinity’s practices and the provision of adequate medical care. “The ethical and religious directives are entirely consistent with high-quality health care, and our clinicians continue to provide superb care throughout the communities we serve.”

On another front, in the aftermath of a victory for assisted suicide in California, critics are asking why Catholic hospitals refuse to participate in assisted suicide in states where it is legal. In a report in The Nation, some doctors who favour assisted suicide complained that patient care was compromised, that they had been gagged, and that they fear losing their jobs. In Washington state, where assisted suicide is legal, the problem is even more visible, as Catholic hospitals provide nearly one bed in two. The Nation sums up the problem:

“Catholic healthcare institutions have been important and indispensable components of America’s medical landscape for centuries. But what’s clear is that the ragged interchange between America’s excessively complex healthcare delivery system and the demands for religious exemptions have produced problematic results that answer not to the will of the people or their elected representatives but to religious authorities.”

With increasing tension over abortion, same-sex marriage, and end-of-life care, the next few years could see an explosion of conflicts over conscientious objection and religious exemptions. Stay tuned. 

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Creative commons
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assisted suicide
Catholic health care
conscientious objection
sterilization