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“Are Women Still Safe in Catholic Hospitals?”

The state funds the hospital but, according to Catholic doctrine and in actual practice, the pope still "governs" it.

An Irish bishop, Kevin Doran, confirms the position of the Catholic Church on services that the state funds, but that the Church delivers. According to the Vatican's own regulations (canon law) it is free to enforce Church doctrine on its turf, even if the taxpayer is footing the bill. The Bishop referred to three tenets of canon law which decree that land held by religious institutions is “ecclesiastical property” over which the Pope has “primacy of governance”. He added that public funding “does not change that.” [1]

This leads to patients not being offered the full range of medical procedures which can deny them appropriate medical treatment.

Religious interference with medicine is increasing

In the US the problem of women's access to services of which the Vatican disapproves is growing. That's because a wave of mergers between Catholic and secular hospitals. Catholic hospitals that merge or form partnerships with secular hospitals increasingly try to impose religious restrictions on the combined system. This can prevent women in need from accessing contraception, sterilisation, emergency abortions, and even timely help to avoid massive infection during miscarriages. [2] 

They do can this because every Catholic-sponsored hospital in the nation has to obey rules issued by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Called the Ethical and Religious Directives, these prohibit procedures that are “intrinsically immoral, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and direct sterilization.” [3] This means that Catholic hospitals refuse to perform procedures like tubal ligations, even when another pregnancy could kill the woman. [4]

The bishops' rules can even keep Catholic hospitals from inducing delivery to speed up miscarriages that have already begun and where the foetus has no chance of survival. Instead, doctors have been delaying until the foetal heart stopped on its own or until sepsis (blood poisoning) threatened the life of the woman. A report on Mercy Health Partners hospital in Muskegon, Michigan, claimed that five women were forced in 2009-2010 to undergo dangerous miscarriages. None of them were even informed that their health was at risk. None were told of their medical options. And none of them were transferred to another hospital for the treatment that they were secretly being refused. [4]

A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union explains the growing power of the Vatican to impose its policies on the American public.

As Catholic hospitals become the sole option for more people, as they’ve merged with secular entities … they become more empowered to impose their will on the public because there’s no other recourse. [5]

And the figures bear this out. As of 2018 one in six hospital patients in the United States was treated in a Catholic facility, according to the Catholic Health Association. In a 2016 report, MergerWatch found that in 10 states, 30 percent or more of the acute-care hospital beds were under Catholic Church control and in a growing number of rural areas this amounts to 100 percent. [6]

Church opposition even extends to referrals. A member of the Pontifical Council for Health Care has deplored referrals by those who do not wish to carry out abortions themselves as “terrible”. [7] And in practice women have been finding that Catholic hospitals not only refuse to refer them to where they can get the treatment they need, but even deny them information about medical options that the Church disapproves of. [8]

It looks very much as if conscientious objection is a smokescreen and that the real aim is to prevent women from accessing abortion and even contraception.

The problem is not confined, of course to the US. In Australia the resolve of the state of Victoria to uphold women's reproductive rights is being quietly tested by several Catholic doctors who have refused to comply with the law and refer patients to another practitioner so they could have an abortion. The Vatican has frankly admitted that it is “waiting to see if anyone [in government] will take action”. [9] After all, a law is only as good as its enforcement. Meanwhile in New Zealand several Catholic doctors are taking the government to court over new guidelines. These allow a doctor who objects to abortion to decline to perform one, but still require that he tell a patient who is having doubts about her pregnancy that abortion is an option. [10] The doctor’s refusal to even let the patient know she can get an abortion from someone else makes the game clear: this is not about sparing the doctor's conscience but about limiting the patient's choice. In other words, it's about enforcing Church doctrine on society.

An example of this tightening of Church policy came in May 2010 when a US bishop condemned and excommunicated a highly-regarded nun who approved an abortion necessary to save a pregnant woman's life. [11] This marks the first time that the Catholic Church has sought to enforce its official doctrine that a woman must be sacrificed in order to preserve a foetus, even if she does not want to die.

US court refuses to “impermissibly intrude upon ecclesiastical matters”

In 2012 Irish Catholic doctors denied an abortion to a woman who was miscarrying which caused her to die of an infection. [12] This created a scandal in Ireland, yet in the US this appears to be commonplace. A report details how a single Catholic hospital similarly risked the health of five different women in a span of 17 months, forcing forcing them to undergo dangerous miscarriages by giving them no other option. Like the woman in Ireland, the American women were suffering prolonged miscarriages of fetuses that had virtually no hope of survival. Yet the Mercy Health Partners hospital wouldn't allow the safest option which would be an abortion. [13]

And US courts allow this to happen. When one woman sued the US Catholic bishops the court wouldn't even consider her case, for fear it could “impermissibly intrude upon ecclesiastical matters”, and even on appeal this ruling was upheld. [14]

Then in 2016 the ACLU launched a suit on behalf of a woman who claimed that another hospital in the same Catholic network had refused to remove an IUD that had slipped out of position. It took five days for her insurer to transfer her coverage to a secular hospital, during which time, the suit claimed, she was “at risk for infection, cervical and uterine lacerations, and scarring, and pregnancy”. The hospital then claimed that the woman had refused its offer to remove the device! [15]

All this has led a commentator to ask “Are Women Still Safe in Catholic Hospitals?” [16]


1. “Bishop says new hospital must obey the church”, Times, 23 April 2017.

2. Reed Abelon, “Catholic Hospitals Expand, Religious Strings Attached”, New York Times, 20 February 2012.

“Women’s Health Care at Risk”, Editorial, New York Times, 28 February 2012.

3. US Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services”, Sixth Edition, June 2018, p. 25.

4. "Abortion ban linked to dangerous miscarriages at Catholic hospital, report claims", Guardian, 18 February 2016.

5. “Catholic hospital denies Michigan woman treatment on religious grounds”, Guardian, 15 October 2015.

6. "As Catholic Hospitals Expand, So Do Limits on Some Procedures", New York Times, 10 August 2018.

7. “Vatican to address abortions in Catholic hospital”, Catholic News Agency, 2012-11-15

8. "As Catholic Hospitals Expand, So Do Limits on Some Procedures", New York Times, 10 August 2018.

9. Claire Trevett, “Anti-abortion doctors challenge guidelines”, New Zealand Herald, 19 February 2010.

10. Abortion Law Reform Association of NZ, “High Court rejects broadening scope of conscientious objection over abortion”, 08 December 2010.

11. Nicholas D. Kristoff, “Sister Margaret’s Choice”, New York Times, 26 May 2010.

12. “Savita Halappanavar died due to medical misadventure, inquest finds”, Guardian, 19 April 2013.

13. “Abortion ban linked to dangerous miscarriages at Catholic hospital, report claims”, Guardian, 18 February 2016.

14. “Appeals court rejects Michigan woman's lawsuit over Catholic hospital care”, Reuters, 8 September 2016.

15. “Woman alleges hospital refused to remove her IUD, citing Catholic rules”, Guardian, 01 September 2016.

16. Jacob M. Appel, “After St. Joseph's: Are Women Still Safe in Catholic Hospitals?” Huffington Post, 16 May 2010.

Further reading on Catholic healthcare polices in the US

Nicholas D. Kristof, “Tussling Over Jesus”, New York Times, 26 January 2011.

“The Facts About Catholic Health Care”, Catholics for Choice, 2005.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Committee on Doctrine, “The distinction between direct abortion and legitimate medical procedures”, 23 June 2010.

The 2010 bishops’ directive is discussed by a priest and specialist on Catholic ethics: John F. Tuohey, “A Fatal Conflict: Can Catholic Hospitals refuse to save lives?”, 28 January 2011.

Harris Meyer, “Catholic directive may thwart end-of-life wishes: Bishops cite ‘obligation’ for using feeding tubes at religious facilities”, Kaiser Health News, 24 February 2010.

David Dayen, “Catholic Bishops Enact Plan For ‘300,000 Terri Schiavos’”, Firedoglake, 24 November 2009. reposted:

Hanna Hindstrom, “U.N. Agencies Duck Taking Stand on Safe Abortion”, Women’s eNews, 2 August 2011.



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