Prescription For Trouble

The recent spate of mergers between Roman Catholic and non-sectarian hospitals puts the health care of Americans -- especially American women -- at risk.

Church policy states that when Catholic hospitals merge with secular medical institutions, the latter are required to operate under a series of hierarchical directives designed to enforce church doctrines. This means no abortions for any reason, no distribution of birth control and no sterilizing operations. In addition, the church reserves the right to ignore any end-of-life directive (such as a "living will") that conflicts with church teachings.

In rural areas, the effect of losing these services can be quite severe. Lois Uttley, director of MergerWatch, a group that monitors mergers between Catholic and non-sectarian hospitals nationwide, tells the story of what happened in a small town in New York after the local secular hospital merged with a Catholic hospital. Poor women who relied on the non-sectarian facility for birth control were suddenly told, "We don't do that anymore." Worse yet, the staff refused to refer the women to other facilities where they could get the services.

A recent survey by Catholics for a Free Choice found that the vast majority of Catholic hospitals refuse to provide "emergency contraceptive" pills for rape victims, arguing that these pills are equivalent to abortion. This policy is downright cruel.

The good news is that in many communities, activists are fighting back. Some proposed mergers have been blocked, and some secular hospitals that did merge with Catholic institutions later got a "divorce" thanks to community pressure.

In the interest of maintaining freedom of conscience, government needs to play a more active role as well. In most states, proposed hospital mergers must be cleared by government officials to make sure the move serves the public interest. Government officials should ask some hard questions and examine the impact the Catholic directives will have on health care.

As this problem is addressed, one thing should remain clear: This is not an issue of Catholics vs. non-Catholics. Polls show that most American Catholics believe abortion should be legal in at least some cases, and the majority of Catholic women use artificial contraception. Unfettered mergers between Catholic and non-sectarian hospitals place everyone's health care at risk.

Medical decisions should be made by patients in consultation with their doctors. Patients remain free to consult with religious leaders if they like, but no American should be forced to put up with coercion from church officials in this most private area. The government has a duty and obligation to make certain that no one is subjected to "religious health care" against his or her will.