Medical Intervention

Religion, Health Care And Your Rights

Medical institutions affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church account for nearly 20 percent of the nation’s hospital beds. Despite the fact that they receive direct tax support and participate in programs like Medicare and Medicaid, these facilities play by their own rules. They can and do elevate church dogma over sound medical policies.

Late in 2009, an incident at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix captured national headlines. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted insisted that the hospital had no right to perform an abortion, even though doctors deemed the procedure necessary to save a woman’s life. In January, the bishop decreed that the hospital can no longer call itself Catholic.

This incident should give us all pause. It’s also an opportunity to think seriously about the growing problem of religious interference in health care.

When Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals merge (something that happens with increasing regularity), the non-Catholic hospital almost always agrees to abide by a series of restrictive directives promulgated by the church hierarchy. These directives reflect church doctrine: They ban all abortions, forbid the distribution of certain medications (including “morning after” pills for rape victims), prohibit sterilization operations and can nullify a patient’s end-of-life directives. Certain types of fertility treatments are not offered.

People who are accustomed to receiving certain services at a hospital may find that those services are lost post-merger. Even worse, we now see examples of bishops demanding that life-saving treatment be withheld if it conflicts with church dogma.

At the same time, religiously conservative pharmacists are demanding the “right” to refuse to fill certain doctor-issued prescriptions, such as birth control or morning-after medications, if they consider them an affront to their beliefs. Some states have actually passed laws protecting these pharmacists instead of patients’ rights.

Americans need to be better informed about these threats to health care so they might more effectively advocate for their rights. Experience has shown that when people know what’s at stake, they oppose hospital mergers that curtail services.

At the same time, our elected officials must ensure that Catholic hospitals abide by federal law. Legislation passed in 1986 requires hospitals that participate in Medicare to provide lifesaving care regardless of the patient’s ability to pay. This obviously includes women dealing with crisis pregnancies that endanger their lives. Bishops like Olmsted have no right to put church dogma above this common-sense law.

Bishop Olmsted’s heavy-handed actions in Phoenix may have had one good effect: They put a spotlight on the issue of sectarian interference in health care. It is often overlooked, but it shouldn’t be. Often, it is literally a matter of life and death.