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Religious affiliation should not trump patient health: Catholic Hospital denies life-saving tubal ligation to pregnant woman

Yet another woman is being denied important medical care in the name of Catholicism. Jezebel reports:

Jessica Mann, a 33-year-old social worker, is in her third trimester of pregnancy with her third child. Mann has pilocytic astrocytoma brain tumors, meaning that any future pregnancies could be fatal. Additionally, the tumors mean that she will not be able to give birth naturally due to the risk of seizure—instead, she’ll receive a Cesarean section under full anesthesia. At the recommendation of her obstetrician and a maternal fetal medicine specialist, she decided to opt for a tubal ligation (to get her tubes tied) while under anesthesia, immediately after giving birth.

But her hospital, Genesys Regional Medical Center, follows the US Conference of Catholic Bishops Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. As such, it is refusing to allow doctors to perform the tubal ligation. Instead, Mann will have to undergo and recover from additional surgery and anesthesia at a later date, when she would otherwise have been home taking care of her newborn. (The Catholic Church is pro-family?) The ACLU of Michigan is helping Mann.

Loretto Catholic hospital in Minnesota, photo by the National Archives and Records Administration, courtesy of Wikicommons.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sounded the alarm on Christian privilege bestowed on Catholic hospitals by American law. We opposed the Catholic takeover of hospitals in Washington, which eventually helped nudge Governor Inslee to strengthen regulations for hospital partnerships and Attorney General Robert Ferguson to issue a formal opinion declaring that hospital districts that provide maternity care and that receive taxes, must provide information on contraception and abortion.

Our June 2013 letter to Washington Gov. Inslee highlighted many of the problems with submitting women’s health to Catholic ideology. The overriding concern is that Catholic hospitals are religious ministries first, and medical organizations second. The American Medical Association Principles of Medical Ethics says, “A physician shall, while caring for a patient, regard responsibility to the patient as paramount.” Unlike the medical profession, which is committed to patients and patient care above all, Catholic health organizations are committed to church doctrine above all. They are driven primarily by religious beliefs, not by the tenets and ethics of the medical profession.

The religion-over-medicine philosophy is exemplified by the Bishops’ Directives, the same directives that are preventing Mann’s doctors from performing her tubal ligation. Rather than relying on evidence-based medical science, the Bishops’ Directives are based on “theological principles,” and “flow principally from the natural law, understood in the light of the revelation Christ has entrusted to his Church.” (For a full breakdown of the directives’ depravity, read our June 2013 letter.)

The first two directives revealingly focus on religious concerns, not on patient health and well-being, including that providing health care “be animated by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and guided by the moral tradition of the Church.”

The theme of placing dogma before medicine continues throughout the document. The Bishops’ Directives mandate respect for the wishes and decisions of patients, unless those decisions conflict with Catholic beliefs:

  • Directive 24: “In compliance with federal law, a Catholic health care institution will make available to patients information about their rights . . . to make an advance directive for their medical treatment. The institution, however, will not honor an advance directive that is contrary to Catholic teaching.
  • Directive 25: “Each person may identify in advance a representative to make health care decisions as his or her surrogate in the event that the person loses the capacity to make health care decisions. Decisions by the designated surrogate should be faithful to Catholic moral principles and to the person’s intentions and values . . . .
  • Directive 59: “The free and informed judgment made by a competent adult patient concerning the use or withdrawal of life-sustaining procedures should always be respected and normally complied with, unless it is contrary to Catholic moral teaching.”

This means that patient decisions on abortion, contraception, voluntary sterilization, etc. are secondary to Catholic dogma.

The Bishops Directives’ (and therefore the Catholic Church) oblige Catholic institutions to follow the Directives—“Catholic health care services must adopt these Directives as policy”—and also require all secular medical affiliates to comply with Catholic teachings: “Any partnership that will affect the mission or religious and ethical identity of Catholic health care institutional services must respect church teaching and discipline.” (Directive 68)

These directives are appalling violations of the rights of individual conscience. They impose the Catholic religion on all patients, regardless of their beliefs. Yet Catholic hospitals receive vast infusions of federal funds. And unfortunately, many secular facilities are being forced to merge with Catholic hospitals to stay afloat, and are being forced to follow the Bishops Directives, placing Catholic theology over patients’ health and rights.

Religion has no right to determine what medicine is. That is for doctors and medical science. Nor does religion have any right to refuse to provide legitimate medical services to a citizen. That is for the citizen to decide. The antiquated medical notions of a conclave of celibate men with no medical training—the Catholic Church hierarchy—cannot be allowed to dictate to a woman what she can and cannot do with her body.

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