When Catholic Dogma Fuels Medical Negligence

When Catholic Dogma Fuels Medical Negligence February 22, 2016


Despite its public image as the faith of kindly Pope Francis, Roman Catholicism still enforces cruel, medieval rules that kill women. Witness this story from the Guardian on how Catholic hospitals’ abortion ban forces women to endure life-threatening infections:

The woman inside the ambulance was miscarrying… As the vehicle wailed toward the hospital, a doctor waiting for her arrival phoned a specialist, who was unequivocal: the baby would die. The woman might follow. Induce labor immediately.

But staff at the Mercy Health Partners hospital in Muskegon, Michigan would not induce labor for another 10 hours. Instead, they followed a set of directives written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that forbid terminating a pregnancy unless the mother is in grave condition. Doctors decided they would delay until the woman showed signs of sepsis – a life-threatening response to an advanced infection – or the fetal heart stopped on its own.

The report by Faith Groesbeck, a former Michigan health official, details five stories of women who showed up at a Catholic hospital in the throes of miscarriage and were denied treatment. While the cases in this report happened before Pope Francis took office, the rules that led to them haven’t changed.

In cases like this, the appropriate treatment is to provide an abortion to hasten the inevitable end of the pregnancy; otherwise, the longer the miscarriage is permitted to drag on, the greater the risk the woman is at for hemorrhage or sepsis. But Catholic religious rules that ban abortion prevent the doctors from doing anything. It’s comparable to a stab victim showing up at an emergency room and the hospital refusing on religious grounds to stitch the wound.

One of the women in the report was Tamesha Means, whose case I’ve written about before, and whose lawsuit against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is still working its tortuous way through the courts. As I wrote at the time, in Catholic hospitals like these, the decrees of bishops tie the doctors’ hands:

“In each incident, [Mercy Health Partners] withheld medically indicated treatment and information from pregnant women experiencing emergency situations,” the report reads. “These practices not only risk life-threatening infection, infertility, and health problems, they subject women to unnecessary physical and psychological suffering.”

This is the same policy that killed Savita in Ireland and that’s jeopardized the lives of many other women in Catholic hospitals. Often, they only pull through because some brave doctor defies religious dogma and acts without approval to save the woman’s life.

I’ve written about Catholic bloggers who think prematurely inducing labor is an option in these kinds of cases (which at an early stage of pregnancy is really just abortion by another name). The Guardian report clarifies that while this is the church’s position on paper, there are no clear guidelines on when it’s permissible and when it isn’t, which means that in practice it’s usually denied to women who need it:

According to the report, a hospital executive told county health officials that at Mercy Health Partners, “as long as there is a heartbeat, induction of labor is not an option in a Catholic institution unless the mother’s life is in jeopardy”. But the executive, Joseph O’Meara, admitted that the hospital did not have a clear standard for determining when a woman’s life was in jeopardy, the report says.

And even more so:

None of the women in the report were more than 20 weeks pregnant – which is several weeks before the fetus can survive outside the womb. And all five women showed signs of infection, the report says, such as an elevated temperature or heart rate.

Yet staff never informed any of the women that there was an alternative to natural miscarriage – immediate delivery – or that immediate delivery is a safer option for women showing signs of infection, the report says. One woman told Groesbeck that even when she asked medical staff to deliver her infant, they refused.

To me, the most jaw-dropping moment in the story was the defense offered by a physician at the hospital. He believes that they did the right thing except in one case, and this is what what they should have done instead:

Doublestein questioned Groesbeck’s conclusion that all the women were showing signs of infection. He concluded that the hospital had acted appropriately in every case, except when doctors reportedly allowed a woman to develop signs of sepsis. In that case, Doublestein said, doctors should have given the woman the option of being transferred to a secular hospital, 45 minutes away, where doctors could induce labor.

It’s such a revealing statement about the distorted mindset of religious morality that he thinks this is a defense – that even though the woman was already in grave danger from sepsis and they could have treated her on the spot, they should have sent her miles away to do the procedure that the doctors already standing over her bed wouldn’t do. Imagine calling the police department to report that someone was breaking into your house, and they say, “Sorry, our priest tells us we can’t help you. But try calling the police in the next town over, 45 miles from here. Maybe they’ll send someone over!”

Bear in mind that all this happened in just one Catholic hospital serving one community. It’s very likely that there are many more cases like this all over the country that we haven’t heard about, especially since Catholic hospitals continue to gobble up secular competitors:

According to a December 2013 report by MergerWatch, a healthcare watchdog, and the American Civil Liberties Union, the number of Catholic hospitals increased 16% between 2010 and 2011. At the same time, the numbers of public, secular and other religious hospitals all dropped. One out of every nine hospital beds in the US are located in facilities that follow Catholic teachings, the report found, and in 30 communities, the only local hospital is a Catholic one.

This is a scary prospect, and one more reason why we need separation of church and hospital, not just church and state. All people deserve care according to the best medical and scientific standards, not the decrees of bishops. Until that day comes, this is worth keeping in mind for anyone who’s pregnant or might get pregnant in the future. If you need medical help and go to a Catholic hospital, they may deny you.

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