Treatment Denied: Catholic Hospitals Refuse Care

Kathleen Prieskorn gasped in shock as her medical nightmare began. Still reeling from the heartbreak of an earlier miscarriage, Prieskorn was three months pregnant and working as a waitress when she felt a twinge, felt a trickle down her leg and realized she was miscarrying again.

She rushed to her doctor’s office, “where I learned my amniotic sac had torn,” says Prieskorn, who lives with her husband in Manchester, N.H. “But the nearest hospital had recently merged with a Catholic hospital — and because my doctor could still detect a fetal heartbeat, he wasn’t allowed to give me a uterine evacuation that would help me complete my miscarriage.”

To get treatment, Prieskorn, who has no car, had to instead travel 80 miles to the nearest hospital that would perform the procedure — expensive to do in an ambulance, because she had no health insurance. Her doctor handed her $400 of his own cash and she bundled into the back of a cab.

“During that trip, which seemed endless, I was not only devastated, but terrified,” Prieskorn remembers. “I knew that if there were complications I could lose my uterus — and maybe even my life.”

Ordeals like the one Prieskorn suffered are not isolated incidents: They could happen to a woman of any income level, religion or state now that Catholic institutions have become the largest not-for-profit source of health-care in the U.S., treating 1 in 6 hospital patients. And that’s because Catholic hospitals are required to adhere to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services — archconservative restrictions issued by the 258-member U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Because of the directives, doctors and nurses at Catholic-affiliated facilities are not allowed to perform procedures that the Catholic Church deems “intrinsically immoral, such as abortion and direct sterilization.” Those medical personnel also cannot give rape survivors drugs to prevent pregnancy unless there is “no evidence that conception has already occurred.” The only birth control they can dispense is advice about “natural family planning” — laborious daily charting of a woman’s basal temperature and cervical mucus in order to abstain from sex when she is ovulating — which only 0.1 percent of women use.

The Catholic directives involve not just abortion and birth control but ectopic pregnancies, embryonic stem cell research, in-vitro fertilization, sterilizations and more. “The problem with [the directives],” says Susan Berke Fogel, an attorney at the National Health Law Program in Los Angeles, “is about substandard care becoming rampant in the U.S., threatening women’s health and women’s lives.”

Catastrophe was only narrowly averted in 2009 when a 27-year-old, 11-weeks-pregnant patient in Arizona staggered into the emergency room of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix with such severe pulmonary hypertension that her doctors determined she would die without an immediate abortion. The ethics committee voted to break hospital policy and advise the woman of her option of a lifesaving abortion. The woman chose to have doctors terminate the pregnancy.

But when the bishop overseeing the Phoenix diocese heard about this, he declared that St. Joseph’s could no longer be a Catholic institution unless it agreed to follow Catholic “moral teachings.” The Bishop forbade Catholic Mass in the hospital’s chapel and excommunicated Sister Margaret McBride — the only nun on the ethics committee.

The Phoenix story drew national outrage, but lesser-known cases of religious doctrine affecting medical care are rampant. In Oregon, a bishop threw out a medical-center director from his diocese for refusing to stop sterilizing patients. In Arizona, a couple raced to a Catholic hospital ER after the wife miscarried one of a pair of fetuses, only to be sent to a secular facility after doctors determined that the twin fetus was still alive — though not viable. And in New York, doctors at a Catholic institution neglected to terminate an ectopic pregnancy (in which the fertilized egg begins to develop outside the uterus) even though the embryo could not possibly survive and the patient faced a potentially fatal rupture of her fallopian tube.

How did we get to the point where 258 right-wing bishops — all (supposedly) celibate male clerics — are prohibiting doctors from practicing medicine and denying women essential reproductive care? The debacle starts with anti-choice legislation. The U.S. Congress started to pass “conscience clauses” pushed by the Roman Catholic Church and anti-abortion forces in the immediate wake of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973. Today, these laws apply not only to physicians and nurses who oppose abortion, but to entire institutions whose “consciences” allow them to withhold medically indicated care.

Even as recently as 2008, the George W. Bush administration issued sweeping regulations to give health-care workers the right to refuse to take part in any procedure that “violates” their religious beliefs. The Obama administration moved to reverse this policy in February (making it explicit that contraception is not covered by conscience provisions), but 47 states and the District of Columbia now allow individuals or entities to refuse women reproductive health services, information or referrals.

You don’t have to be a Catholic to end up at a Catholic hospital that refuses you lifesaving care. A Catholic facility might be the only one in your area, and when you expect treatment you may get dogma instead. “Religion in America should mean that the church runs the church,” says Barry Lynn, the executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “It shouldn’t mean the bishops are running your reproductive life.”

This post was originally published by the Ms. Magazine blog.


Related Stories:

Students Suspended From Catholic School For Pro-Choice Activism

House Passes H.R. 3, Reproductive and Women’s Groups Respond

Catholic Bloggers Demand a Purity Purge


Photo from ROSS HONG KONG via flickr
Written by Molly M. Ginty, a Ms. Magazine writer.


Nellie P.
Nellie P5 years ago

This brings back bad memories. Years ago my husband and I were expecting and I was almost 4 months along. I had gone to visit my mom in the next town. I was helping her fold dishtowels when I had a sudden sharp pain in my abdomen. She rushed me to the nearest hospital St. Mary's. By this time I was gushing blood, in agony, and scared to death. The doctor informed me that the fetus was still alive and sac still intact. To make a long story short, the placenta was malformed and had ripped a hole in my uterus and I was bleeding out. We were told nothing could be done because to try and fix the problem *may* injure or abort the fetus. Fortunately by that time my husband arrived, literally picked me up, took out the IV's and drove me to a different hospital. I almost died. The baby did. It took a lot of transfusions, and surgery to fix me back up again. But the thing I will never forget, was the nurse at St. Mary's saying to my husband as he was getting ready to pick me up in his arms "you know what you're doing is evil and against god's intentions right"? They were going to let me die. Catholic hospitals? NEVER AGAIN!

Mark P.
Mark P.5 years ago

When will people start to understand that YOUR religious liberty is about how YOU practice religion and that AS SOON AS ANOTHER person is involved YOUR liberty ENDS????? To be putting women at risk of death because of their (the hospital admin's) religious convictions is immoral, dangerous and sadistic. Just like the rest of the Catholic Church. This whole thing flies in the face of the Sixth Commandment - Thou Shalt Not Kill. They are putting these women at risk of death, which is the same as murder if EVEN ONE woman dies from the churches sadism. The church cannot even live up to the very Commandments they are attempting to force us all to live by.

Phil Wood
Phil Wood5 years ago

Actually, Peggy, the Catholic church does not countenance in vitro fertilization as moral. Don't take my word for it, read their views for yourself:
This story here about medical care is simply further proof that the "conscience clause" of many proposed state laws is bankrupt.

Peggy Oconnor
Peggy Oconnor5 years ago

The author of this article clearly did not research before writing. The Catholic Church does not discriminate on invitro fertilization. The doctrines are written to preserve life at all costs. However, there was no risk of life at this point. Whether her pregnancy was viable was the consideration. It is entirely possible that she could have been placed on bed rest to attempt maintaining the pregnancy since there was still a heartbeat. As a matter of fact, hospitals are bound to treat anyone coming in for help. However, once a patient is stabilized, they can be transferred to another facility for treatment. This is done all the time if a patient is uninsured where they will be transferred to a county or general hospital for continued treatment. The other error in this article is to speak of profitability for the hospital. Community and religiously affiliated hospitals use their profits to improve the hospital. Community hospitals, by their nature, must turn a percentage of their profit back to the patient in level of care, updated equipment and/or building. The majority of people are terribly uninformed when they go to the ER for treatment. A great number, if not majority, of people who arrive at the ER are not suffering from acute onset of symptoms but rather have waited because they do not have insurance or did not want to pay a doctor. Too many accept the care and never pay their bill, which is also subsidized by profits. Over the past three years the discuss

Diane L.
Diane L6 years ago

James C., read it again. The Mother survived. She was not in immediate danger of anything, except losing her pregnancy, and that had already happened. There was no chance of saving the child at that stage.

As far as the hospital receiving government money, first of all simply because it's a Catholic hospital doesn't mean it shouldn't operate to make a profit. Most hospitals DO these days, so why would a Catholic hospital be different? They are not operated BY the government, nor are they a charitable institution. They have the right to not admit anyone, except when it's a matter of life or death. The mother's life was not at stake her, and the fetus had already been "lost", even though the doctor CLAIMS he heard a fetal heartbeat.

Dr Clue
Dr Clue6 years ago

Religious hospitals should not be forced to violate tenants of faith, but as a result should not take government money.

James Campbell
James Campbell6 years ago

there was a chance that the mother would have survived and withholding treatment is both appalling and unethical.

James Campbell
James Campbell6 years ago

At the earliest, a foetal heartbeat can be detected in the first trimester at around the 9-10th week of pregnancy and sometimes not until 12-14th weeks. At 12 weeks gestation the heart rate settles into the normal range of 120-160 BPM for the remainder of the pregnancy. ‘Miscarriage’ is defined as a “pregnancy loss prior to 20 weeks gestation”, however, it is more common to have this happen in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Bleeding, cramping and backache can be typical signs of a miscarriage during this period. It is not usual practice to rush to termination, instead, bed-rest is advised where the woman is monitored for any signs of fever and blood tests are done. Further checks wold also include checking to see if there a foetal heartbeat, is there any discharge from or remaining within the cervix and is the cervix open or closed? However, the report does state that the amniotic sac was ‘ripped’, but not the type (complete and incomplete). Uterine rupture in pregnancy is a rare (approx. 0.07%) and diagnosis is difficult, but is life-threatening to both mother and child. Uterine rupture is associated with the following: clinically significant uterine bleeding; foetal distress; expulsion or protrusion of the foetus, placenta, or both into the abdominal cavity; the need for prompt caesarean delivery and uterine repair or hysterectomy. In this case, the foetus would not have survived, but there was a chance that the mother would and withholding

James Campbell
James Campbell6 years ago

Hope S.

You make some interesting points. Without doubt this woman did not receive the best of care, as it appears that her health was secondary to religious rulings, This should *never *play any part in medicine. However, I there are some unanswered questions which I am reluctant to go in to here, other than to say the text is far too brief to allow readers to understand the real situation. I am a Paediatrician not an Obstetrician, but I can offer an example (in other post) of a typical situation at 12 weeks gestation. The comment that “because my doctor could still detect a fetal heartbeat, he wasn’t allowed to give me a uterine evacuation that would help me complete my miscarriage.” prompts me ask why the physician felt compromised in what is described as his “office” - was this in a hospital or separate from and what this has to do with regulations governing a Catholic hospital - or am I missing something here?.

Anne H.
Anne H6 years ago

America became America because we wanted religious freedom, not religious oppression. This looks like a whole lot of judging to me and I thought that was supposed to be left up to the almighty.

Let's stop giving churches tax breaks and see if that helps them w/ their decision making.