Changes in the economics of providing health care have led to a wave of hospital mergers, many of which include wealthy Catholic organizations buying up struggling secular hospitals. We’ve already covered how these mergers can affect patient care by pushing religion-based standards of care onto non-Catholic patients.
Now Washington, among the bluest of blue states when it comes to medical ethics, has become a flashpoint in this particular conflict, and the rights of patients rest in the balance.
Washington State boasts some of the country’s most liberal laws on controversial medical issues like abortion and physician-assisted suicide. The Death With Dignity Act makes Washington one of only two states that permit doctors to hasten death at the request of a terminally-ill patient wishing to avoid suffering. The state legalized abortion by popular vote three years before Roe v. Wade, and the current crop of lawmakers are working to ensure that every woman has health care coverage to fund her abortions, whether elective or medically-advised.
Polls indicate that Washington is one of the least religious states in the union (which may have something to do with its liberalism), but if all the proposed mergers go through, fully half of the state’s hospital beds will be controlled by Catholic organizations requiring medical professionals to adhere to Catholic moral strictures as outlined in the United States’ Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives (PDF). A quarter of the state’s counties would have no non-Catholic hospital care available at all.
That’s a prospect that concerns many Washingtonians, who fear that their access to legal procedures will be compromised by Catholic hospital rules. Some LGBTQ groups and individuals have also expressed the fear that their hospitals will fail to recognize the legal rights of same-sex partners.
The executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat for Doctrine shrugged off these concerns, and questions about whether medical professionals at Catholic-directed institutions would even be allowed to refer or advise patients on how to access their legal rights:
If you go to a Catholic medical institution, you’re going to get medical advice that is in keeping with the moral norms of that institution. We think Catholic medical advice is the best medical advice to give.
A majority of Washington’s citizens would disagree. But thanks to the shaky economics of today’s hospitals, the wealthiest health care providers have the clout to grant or withhold access, legal rights be damned. Whoever has the gold makes the rules.
Unfortunately for Washingtonians, Catholic medical powerhouses have the gold. And their rules won’t take into account what’s really best for women in the state.