Catholic hospitals commonly compromise patients’ health for the sake of religious dogma, according to a new report from the ACLU.
The report, Healthcare Denied: Patients and Physicians Speak Out About Catholic Hospitals and the Threat to Women’s Health and Lives, recounts instances where doctors at Catholic-affiliated hospitals have been prohibited from caring for their patients due to theologically-based rules. Its stated goal is “to shine a light on the harm and discrimination occurring at hospitals across this country and call for a change in our laws to ensure that these stories are not repeated.” The ACLU notes that in western Washington, more than 40 percent of hospitals are Catholic-affiliated.
The report details multiple stories in which pregnant women who miscarried, or otherwise had pregnancy-related health problems, were denied care and put at risk due to the Church’s prohibitions on abortion. One anecdote came from an anonymous Washignton woman:
Maria (a pseudonym), a health care professional and mother of two in Washington State, was six to seven weeks along in her second pregnancy when she began experiencing heavy vaginal bleeding. She knew she was miscarrying and sought emergency care at the Catholic hospital where she was then working. Although she was aware of the hospital’s religious affiliation, her insurance coverage extended only to that hospital, and she could not afford thousands of dollars in out-of-network costs to go elsewhere.
Maria’s physician explained that the pregnancy was no longer viable and that her uterus needed to be evacuated in order to stop the bleeding. But, because the Directives prohibit an abortion if the fetus still has cardiac activity, her physician advised “expectant management,” i.e., waiting to see if Maria’s body would complete the miscarriage on its own.
The hospital staff delayed performing an abortion for hours while they attempted to verify through ultrasound that the fetus did not have a heartbeat, as required by the Directives. Finally, after seven hours, the hospital completed the miscarriage. By then, Maria’s iron levels were so low that she needed a blood transfusion.
It was not without consequence.
All blood transfusions carry risks, such as blood-borne infections and allergic reactions. But what happened to Maria was particularly dangerous. She was transfused with blood carrying Kell antigens and developed anti-Kell antibodies. Because her husband was Kell positive, this meant that their next pregnancy would be at risk for sudden fetal demise. When Maria became pregnant again several years later, she and her husband were terrified throughout that she would suddenly lose the pregnancy. Thankfully, their baby survived. But Maria and her family could have avoided significant emotional trauma if the Catholic hospital had provided her with the care she needed without hours of needless delay.
Put simply, the report shows how doctors cannot always provide the best care possible while also staying on the right side of theology. This is especially true in the case of pregnancy-related care, since 1-pregnancies are just dangerous and fraught in general and 2-the Church has long been obsessed with regulating procreation.