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
and Ohio (the latter of which is in the process of an
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
This poses a severe challenge to many people seeking to
exercise their legal rights to health care, especially
(physician-assisted suicide is legal in Washington state).
Catholic hospitals regularly refuse to perform abortions
necessary to prevent
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
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
This section will be updated as news develops on this topic.