Secular Hospitals "Convert," Leave Women without Care
Last week's national debate surrounding the conflict between religious liberty and women's health has sparked concern about the role that religious hospitals play in providing health services across the country. As small, secular hospitals become unable to sustain themselves financially, more and more have merged with Catholic hospitals in order to maintain financial viability. While these mergers used to be rare, Lisa Goldstein of Moody's Investors Service predicts that this trend will continue to grow. About 20 such mergers have been announced in the last three years, and in 2010 one in six patients was admitted to a Catholic hospital. More often than not, as secular hospitals merge with Catholic ones, they are forced to restrict access to health services, including abortion procedures and the provision of emergency contraception to rape victims.
The right of Americans to receive reproductive health care relies equally on the legality of and access to these services. While it might be legal in a state for a woman to seek abortion services or birth control, she may not be able to exercise that legal right if she lives impossibly far from the nearest provider. Due to the encroachment of Catholic hospitals on secular facilities, more and more women are unable to access the care they need.
No one is denying the need for these hospitals, which often exist in rural or under-served areas. And support for these mergers can be mutual: Secular hospitals are promised financial viability while Catholic hospitals can address their concern that they are, in the words of Ascension executive Charles J. Barnett, "not doing enough to care for the poor and vulnerable." But the trend of Catholic hospitals taking over small, secular hospitals and then restricting the health services available is a disturbing one that undermines the core purpose of a hospital and health care provider.
Not only do Catholic hospitals refuse to perform elective abortions, but the obstetric care that they do provide often does not allow for exceptions in the case of rape, incest or the life of the mother. There are too many heart-wrenching stories to count in which women are admitted to a Catholic hospital as they are suffering a miscarriage or other pregnancy-related complication and the hospital employees act in a way that considers the life of the unborn fetus to be more valuable than the life of the mother. Women have lost their lives as a doctor attempts to save the fetus, only to have both the mother and the unborn fetus die because their care was restricted by religious doctrine. Furthermore, as women are sometimes forced to travel many miles, or even across state lines, to the nearest hospital that will perform life-saving procedures, low-income women who may not have access to a car or the money required to travel by cab or train are disproportionately affected by these barriers.
As the percentage of Catholic hospitals grows, we must also be cognizant of the rise in the percentage of hospital employees who work at Catholic institutions, regardless of their own religious affiliation. Comprehensive health insurance for these women must not be ignored. While some have argued over the past week that it is an employee's decision to work for a religiously affiliated organization, the prevalence of religiously affiliated places of employment makes this situation hardly black and white. Moreover, with America’s employer-based health insurance system, we cannot ignore the employer's responsibility to provide comprehensive health insurance.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, insists that "there can be no discrimination in basic health services," and we must remain vigilant in ensuring that all women in America are able to receive the reproductive health care they need and deserve. Religious autonomy must be protected, but not in a way that abridges a woman’s right to access vital health care services.