Over the past several years, there has been a sharp uptick in the number of Catholic hospitals in the U.S. In 2013, a joint study by MergerWatch and the ACLU found that the ten largest hospital networks in the nation were Catholic-affiliated, a result of sections in the Affordable Care Act that encourage and facilitate mergers. In most of these mergers, Catholic organizations featured as dominant partners.
In theory, this spike in mergers should have saved struggling hospitals and maintained community access to healthcare while creating more efficient systems that lowered the cost of that healthcare. And it might have, too, if the Catholic organizations involved had not shaped their medical directives to advance religious beliefs over patient health.
The Catholic Church has a very strict stance on abortion: under no circumstances is it acceptable. While the majority of Catholics disagree with this position, the Church has not shifted its position and has used that as justification for denying women healthcare when they need it most.
A recent expose featured in the Guardian detailed exactly how reckless that is by telling the story of one Catholic hospital in particular. Between August 2009 and December 2010, Mercy Health Partners hospital in Muskegon, Michigan forced no fewer than five women to endure painful, medically dangerous miscarriages rather than induce birth of a non-viable fetus:
All five women, the report says, had symptoms indicating that it would be safest for them to deliver immediately. But instead of informing the women of their options, the report says, or offering to transfer them to a different hospital, doctors — apparently out of deference to the Mercy Health Partners’ strict ban on abortion — unilaterally decided to subject the women to prolonged miscarriages.
As a result, the report claims, several of the women suffered infection or emotional trauma, or had to undergo unnecessary surgery. None of the women were pregnant beyond 24 weeks, when an infant can survive outside the womb.
One of the women described in the complaint was given Tylenol for a potentially deadly infection and sent home – twice – where she miscarried by herself on the toilet. Another woman, the report says, spent three days in the hospital and eventually required additional surgery.
One cannot understate just how terrifyingly inhumane this practice is. Ask any woman who has suffered a miscarriage, welcome or not, and they will tell you how much of a nightmare it can be. Early miscarriages — prior to eight weeks, for instance — may present in a fashion similar to a heavy period. But in situations where a miscarriage presents life-threatening complications, you’re usually much further along. The fetal tissue expelled is not insubstantial. At 20 weeks, for instance, a woman would be passing a fetus approximately 6 inches long, as well as the placenta. A natural miscarriage at this point can be incredibly painful and last for days.
But beyond that, natural miscarriage increases the odds of deadly infections if fetal tissue remains in the uterus, which is why many women who miscarry later in the pregnancy must have a D&C performed. But at Catholic hospitals, where D&Cs are not allowed, women’s lives are routinely put at risk, especially in cases like the ones found in Michigan, where patients were not even informed of the possible danger involved with forgoing that process.
In addition to the physical trauma and risks associated with these directives, the psychological torture involved is unspeakably cruel. In each of the cases discussed in the report, the women involved wanted their pregnancies. The miscarriage was not welcome news. On top of the heartbreak associated with the loss of a desired pregnancy, these women were then told that their health could not be addressed because doing so was in violation of God’s law. They were subjected to policies that shamed them in an hour of despair for having the audacity to want to live long enough to recover from a personal tragedy.
What is truly unnerving in Michigan, though, is that the decisions made were actually in violation of an already strict Catholic policy on abortion. Technically, the directive makes an exception for the ban when a woman’s health is at stake. As Marie Hilliard, director of public policy at the National Catholic Biotethics Commission, put it, “If the directives are properly applied, there should be no compromise of the wellbeing of human beings.”
And yet, in each of the five cases, where infection was likely and later confirmed, the hospital refused to induce labor or offer D&Cs because the fetus was at a stage of development where a heartbeat could be detected. These women’s lives were put on the line because, even though there were no reasonable expectations for the survival of their fetus, a religious doctrine was being followed in lieu of medical best practices.
Stories like these put a human face on an all too often abstract debate over separation of church and state and protection of religious freedoms. Catholic hospitals are legally allowed to behave in such a morally depraved fashion because their religious beliefs contradict medical science. While profiting from public service and receiving untold amounts of state funding and tax breaks, they hide behind the Cross. Under the current legal regime, even secular for-profit organizations — like Hobby Lobby, for instance — can duck behind religious beliefs while championing distinctly anti-woman policies when it comes to healthcare.
And you know who foots the bill for this bigotry? The American taxpayer. Using religious exemptions, faith-based and secular groups may opt out of providing insurance coverage for birth control, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that birth control coverage will be denied to the women involved. The state pays instead.
But there is no such safety net for women seeking an abortion or healthcare during a miscarriage, and that leaves women like those in Michigan in a very dangerous spot. When we allow religion to be used as an excuse for what amounts to medical malpractice, we endanger women’s lives, period. It’s high time for that to change.
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