Back in November, the advice column Dear Abby ran a letter from a young woman whose husband indicated that, in case of a life-threatening pregnancy, he would prioritize the fetus’ life over his wife’s. In her response, Abby made a comment that about Catholic hospitals having a similar policy.
This past Wednesday, the column ran several letters from Catholic readers correcting Abby on the ostensible inaccuracy of that claim:
You asserted that it is Catholic policy to save the life of the baby over the mother in obstetric emergencies. Abby, that is one of the oldest but most persistent pieces of misinformation out there! This inaccurate statement has been replayed even in movies in spite of repeated denials by Catholic hospitals and the professionals who render care in them.
The fact is: Catholic policy is abundantly clear on the dignity of both mother and baby, and makes no priority of one over the other. Catholic hospitals operate with the same standards of safety in maternity care and are inspected by the same organizations that inspect non-Catholic maternity programs such as the Joint Commission and the licensing agency of each state. Catholic hospitals must adhere to the same robust standards as every other maternity service in the country.
I would appreciate it if you could assure your readers that, while this makes for good movies and novels, it is not the Catholic position. The dignity of the life of both mother and baby are critically important to all those serving in Catholic health care. Thank you for your help with this.
— Sister Carol Keehan, president and chief executive officer, Catholic Health Association
“Catholic Doctor in Ohio” had a similar reassurance for readers:
Devout Catholics are pro-life in every instance, and, of course, efforts to save both mother and infant are always the rule. But the value of the life of a newborn never surpasses the value of the life of the mother. Never!
Now, these objections are technically correct, insomuch as that is the policy on paper.
But in practice, Abby’s description is far closer to the mark — because, all too often, Catholic hospitals don’t think twice about sacrificing women’s health (and their lives) for the sake of the fetus. That’s not surprising; when one life form is completely dependent on another for its survival, one or the other must take precedence in the case of a medical emergency. It’s impossible to treat them as wholly separate.
In cases where a fetus will not survive and is slowly being miscarried, but the lengthy process is killing the pregnant woman, Catholic hospitals will often withhold life-saving care from the woman. Even though the fetus has an expiration date, its temporary well-being is more important than the woman’s long-term survival. That is not equal priority.
While the Church’s brand of “no priority” may have no bearing on the status of the fetus (since a miscarried pre-term fetus remains dead whether the pregnant woman dies or not), it can translate to dead or injured women when neither option needed to be on the table.
That’s why Savita Halappanavar died when she requested an abortion. The fetus, though in the process of being miscarried, still had a heartbeat. It was irrelevant to her Irish doctors that Halappanavar’s own health was deteriorating, and she ultimately died from septicemia and organ failure.
This “no priority” policy also led Trinity Health Corporation (one of the largest Catholic healthcare organizations in the country) to deny emergency abortions to multiple “women [who] had suffered a preterm, premature rupture of membranes.” Even though this “virtually always result[ed] in fetal death,” the hospital wouldn’t act while there were fetal heartbeats, which led to the “women develop[ing] serious complications, including life-threatening infections, severe pain and hemorrhaging.” Trinity later filed a brief arguing that it had a religious right to continue putting women’s lives at risk in order to protect a dying fetus.
It’s also why the Church excommunicated Sister Margaret McBride for signing off on an abortion that medical personnel declared necessary to save the life of an 11-week-pregnant mother of four. Punishing McBride wasn’t enough, though — the hospital lost its religious affiliation for performing that abortion that saved a 27-year-old woman’s life instead of letting her die along with the fetus.
It’s also why some doctors bypass Catholic rules if they want to actually save the lives of the women they’re treating.
The fact of the matter is that, in many cases, equal dignity and priority for mothers and their fetuses is just not possible; Catholic health organizations illustrate time and time again that they have a strong preference for the fetus’ life and dignity at the expense of the mother’s.
It’s a far cry from the misleadingly rosy version of the policy that Abby’s Catholic readers paint.
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