We come to our nation’s hospitals when we’re at our most vulnerable, in our times of greatest need. But many of our hospitals are owned by churches, which limit medical care based on religious doctrines. This keeps patients from the care they need, stops doctors from doing their jobs, and even threatens – and sometimes takes – patients’ lives. We come to hospitals to save our lives, not our souls.
Who Owns Your Hospitals?
While most Americans receive emergency care at public or otherwise secular hospitals, a great many receive care at hospitals run by religious groups. In particular, Catholic hospitals provide care for at least 1 in 6 patients in the United States and are, collectively, the largest not-for-profit health care provider in the country.
Over the past several years, a wave of proposed and completed mergers between secular and Roman Catholic hospitals has increased the number of Americans who will have to rely on a religious hospital for their health care. Several states have already seen mergers, including Illinois, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. More recently, mergers have been proposed in Washington and Ohio (the latter of which is in the process of an anti-trust lawsuit).
Since these hospitals are barred by church doctrine from performing many procedures, this means putting at risk individuals’ health, as well of the health of society generally.
The Consequence of Religious Control of Hospitals
Catholic health care providers are bound by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, a document issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that governs how their health care providers must handle a variety of issues. As this document reads: “The professional-patient relationship is never separated, then, from the Catholic identity of the health care institution.”
This poses a severe challenge to many people seeking to exercise their legal rights to health care, especially reproductive and end-of-life care (physician-assisted suicide is legal in Washington state). Catholic hospitals regularly refuse to perform abortions necessary to prevent serious complications or save a pregnant woman’s life, and refuse to respect the wishes of patients regarding their wishes on how to die.
It also poses a challenge to employees who might feel compelled to provide emergency care barred by the Directives, at risk of losing their jobs. For instance, in 2011 a Catholic nun in Arizona was excommunicated following her decision to approve an emergency abortion necessary to save the life of the mother, who was 11 weeks pregnant at the time.
Yet Catholic hospitals do not simply refrain from offering certain kinds of care – they also often refuse to provide accurate guidance on where patients can receive the care they need. Under the Directives, doctors are barred from telling a patient with a nonviable pregnancy that there are other options available elsewhere. This denial of both care and information is particularly problematic in areas where other hospitals are not located nearby.
Lastly, Catholic hospitals present problems for LGBT patients, who might be denied hormone therapy, or the basic right of married same-sex partners to be treated as next of kin in making health care decisions.
Ensuring All Health Services Are Provided
As Seattle Times columnist Danny Westerneat wrote, “To get public funding, religious hospitals ought to be urged to abide by the public’s health-care principles as much as possible. Not us by theirs. We’d never let the schools be ruled by a church, no matter how well-meaning. With our health care we’re halfway there.”
It is not inherently problematic for a hospital to be affiliated in some way with a religious group. Not all religious groups demand hospitals deny certain services based on religious dogma; some actually ensure their patients can access a full range of quality health care services.
However, religious control of hospitals and their guidelines regarding which health care to provide, and how to provide it, often effectively strips people of their rights to control their bodies – whether it relates to reproductive care, end of life issues, or LGBT concerns. Neither politicians nor churches should dictate individuals’ decisions over their health care. Health care should remain safe and secular.
This section will be updated as news develops on this topic.