Written by Erin Matson for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Hospital hallway

Erin Matson argues that pregnant women should refuse to be taken to Catholic hospitals.

The reason I don’t want to be taken to a Catholic hospital isn’t because of abstract notions about morality, the separation of church and state, or when different faiths say life begins. Rather, I refuse because in Catholic hospitals patients may be refused medical treatment on the basis of church teachings. That’s a pretty big deal if an ambulance or well-meaning relative brings you to one while pregnant, after a rape, or any time you need urgent medical care.

Refusal to Perform Abortions Allows Women to Die

In October 2012, severe back pain brought Savita Halappanavar to a Catholic hospital in Galway, Ireland. When it was revealed that her 17-week pregnancy was unsustainable, doctors ignored her pleas and refused to perform a life-saving abortion, citing Catholic doctrine. Savita died. Her death has implications for all women, knowingly pregnant or not, who enter a Catholic hospital anywhere in the world.

Here in the United States, Sister Margaret McBride was excommunicated after authorizing a life-saving abortion in 2010 for a gravely ill woman at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix.

It is unreasonable to expect that every Catholic hospital in the country will have a dissenting nun willing to be excommunicated or a doctor willing to be fired to prevent women from being killed by “no abortion under any circumstances” rigidity. It seems it’s only a matter of time until the United States has its own Savita — a pregnant woman who dies needlessly in a Catholic hospital because the all-male Catholic hierarchy has decided barring all abortion, no exceptions, is the “pro-life” thing to do.

If Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) had gotten his way in 2011 and HR 358 had been signed into law, under federal law all hospitals would be allowed to refuse life-saving abortion care to patients; they also would be able to refuse arranging transport to another hospital that would provide such care. Pitts even had the nerve to name the bill the “Protect Life Act.”

It’s important to note that discrimination is dangerous and wrong, even when it doesn’t kill you. When we consider abortion only in life-and-death situations, we ignore the health and economic consequences women also face when they are denied constitutionally protected abortion care in the Catholic medical system.

Furthermore, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has claimed that abortion is, well, whatever they say it is. Scientific facts do not back up the bishops’ repeated assertion that emergency contraception is an “abortion-inducing drug”; in reality, emergency contraception prevents pregnancy before it occurs. When facts don’t matter, the next substance that the bishops deem an “abortion-inducing drug” could be anything — routine over-the-counter treatments, standard vaccinations — if the person controlling the medical care available to you is in a Catholic medical facility.

Scope of Problem Is Vast, Hits Rural Areas Hard

If you don’t want to go to a Catholic hospital, you don’t have to, right? You can just “choose” your way out of the problem? Wrong. Setting aside the obvious fact that many people are rushed to the nearest hospital in case of emergency, there are a few additional issues that make Catholic hospitals not so easy to avoid.

First, mergers can catch patients unaware. Facing financial constraints, secular hospitals in communities across the country have been pressured to consider mergers with faith-based institutions. When a secular hospital and a religiously affiliated hospital merge, one institution’s refusal beliefs can trump the other’s commitment to public health. In practice, this means that communities that have been counting on secular hospitals for years might not be aware that new, religious restrictions were wheeled in the door.

Second, there were a large number of Catholic hospitals even before the merger trend. In 1999, religiously affiliated hospitals operated nearly one in five acute hospital care beds in the country, according to a report from Merger Watch.

According to the same report, 48 of the 585 religiously affiliated hospitals studied were “recognized by the federal government as being the sole providers of hospital care in a geographic region.” So if you don’t live in a big city with lots of options, it may be geographically impossible to choose your way out of a Catholic hospital.

Wide Range of Reproductive Health-Care Services Are Restricted

“Unlike their secular counterparts, healthcare services available in Catholic institutions are restricted by guidelines that are separate from established medical norms,” according to a Catholics For Choice memo.

Specifically, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued directives that there be no access to abortion, no contraception, and no in-vitro fertilization in Catholic hospitals. There is a narrow exception for emergency contraception after rape if it can be proven that no pregnancy has occurred, but as we know, the bishops don’t use medical definitions when deciding what constitutes a pregnancy. Other directives bar treatment for ectopic pregnancy, an urgent and fatal condition, and forms of treatment developed from embryonic stem-cell research.

In short, if you’re pregnant and wind up in a Catholic hospital, you could find yourself in more trouble after you’ve seen a doctor than before you walked in the door.

Catholic Hospitals Discriminate, Take Federal Dollars

It is a national scandal that Catholic hospitals discriminate on the basis of sex yet are allowed to rake in federal dollars and receive tax breaks. As noted in both the Merger Watch report and the Catholics For Choice memo, Catholic-affiliated hospitals enjoy non-profit tax breaks and accept public funds, especially from Medicare and Medicaid.

So What Can We Do?

It’s important to raise awareness about Catholic hospitals. Let friends, family members, and employers know that you do not wish to be taken to a Catholic-affiliated hospital under any circumstances. Write or amend an advance medical directive. Urge other women you know to do the same.

If you wish to push further, there are many opportunities for leadership at the community level. Research the hospitals in your area. Do they have religious affiliation? Do they refuse to provide services? Share and publicize the information you learn. Furthermore, watch closely for hospital mergers in your area and work closely with your city council members during the approval process.

Finally, work to change public policy. It’s time to stop tolerating discrimination against patients seeking reproductive health care. It’s time to stop tolerating public dollars supporting these discriminating institutions. And it’s time to stop tolerating men in leadership positions making dangerous decisions for women.

No pregnant woman should die simply because she was taken to the wrong hospital.

Photo by Jorge Gobbi released under a Creative Commons license.