If you give birth in a Catholic hospital and want a hysterectomy afterward, tough luck. A new study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Greenwall Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation, shows that religion-based policy and patient care routinely clash in Catholic hospitals, forcing OB-GYNS to deny their female patients basic services like birth control and sterilization.
The study surveyed more than 1,000 OB-GYNS at religiously affiliated hospitals (not just Catholic hospitals) and found that, according to NPR, “more than one-third report they’ve had a conflict regarding religion-based policy and patient care. At Catholic hospitals, the figure was 52 percent.” Clearly, knowledge of Catholic doctrine is more highly valued in these institutions than a medical degree.
According to Catholics for Choice, the Catholic health care system controls more than 11% of the nation’s total community hospitals and more than 16% of the nation’s total community hospital beds. For people who live in an area where the only hospital is Catholic-affiliated, the lack of reproductive care services like birth control, sterilization and abortion can limit access to these services completely.
For women having a C-section, Catholic hospitals’ refusal to perform post-childbirth tubal ligation procedures can necessitate an unnecessary surgery at a different hospital. “It’s not medically good for a woman to have two surgeries when she could have one,” explained Debra Stulberg, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Chicago Medical School and lead author of the study.
In February, the New York Times reported that a wave of mergers between Catholic and secular hospitals could limit women’s access to reproductive services even further. As this study makes plain, there are serious consequences to having religion-based policy trump patient care, especially when the hospital is the only health care facility readily available to the patient. What happens, for example, if a rape victim is denied an emergency contraceptive at the only health care facility in her community?
The study reports that, fortunately, there have been few cases when Catholic doctrine has prevented doctors from taking all the steps necessary to treat a woman with an ectopic pregnancy, a dangerous medical situation where the embryo begins to grow outside the woman’s uterus, usually in a fallopian tube. Among OB-GYNs who practiced in Catholic hospitals, only 6% reported a conflict between the hospitals’ religious policies and what they perceived as the best treatment for the patient. Even though ectopic pregnancies are relatively rare (they occur in only 2% of pregnancies), many Catholic hospitals prohibit the use of a drug that can prevent surgery for an ectopic pregnancy, saying that it constitutes an abortion, despite the fact that a fetus cannot survive.
The bottom line is clear: Catholic hospitals serve a wide range of patients, regardless of their religious background. In life-or-death situations, physicians should not be forced to choose between adherence to religious policy and saving their patient’s life.
Photo Credit: Ceridwen