Think about the nearest hospital where you would go if you needed reproductive health care. Does it have a religious name like St. Joseph? Does it have a name that sounds ambiguous, like Avera or Dignity? It's harder than you might think to know whether your hospital has a religious affiliation, and that has big implications for your health.
My colleagues and I surveyed women all over the country and found that more than one-third of them had no idea that the hospital they would go to for reproductive health care is Catholic. In fact, many of them said they were sure it was secular. Those women could be in for a shock when they show up at the hospital seeking care.
"Don't wait until you're in the middle of a healthcare crisis. Do your research now."
Catholic hospitals are bound by rules passed down by bishops that limit what kind of care you can access. The rules won't allow them to provide a tubal ligation. If you deliver a baby there and want your tubes tied at the same time, which is recommended practice, you're out of luck — even during a C-section. They don't allow doctors to provide birth control. They'll make you wait until you're sick to provide medical or surgical options to manage a miscarriage. They won't perform an abortion except maybe in an emergency to save your life. Even if a doctor wants to provide the care that is recommended by the medical community, the bishops' judgment wins out.
A national study showed that more than half of ob-gyns who work in Catholic hospitals have come into conflict with the hospital's restrictions on reproductive health care. I talked to a doctor in a Catholic hospital who asked the ethics committee to allow him to perform an abortion for a woman who had cancer and needed aggressive surgery and chemotherapy to save her life. They refused. Another doctor asked for permission to perform an abortion on a woman who had a dangerous condition that could lead to cancer. The ethics committee denied the request because the clergy had googled the condition and decided the abortion wasn't necessary. Another had to tell patients experiencing miscarriage that there was nothing he could do but wait for them to get infected. He encouraged these women going through a difficult experience to check themselves out of the hospital and drive to another one that would take care of them.
This is a growing issue as mergers bring more and more hospitals under the jurisdiction of Catholic bishops. The number of Catholic hospitals in the US has increased by 22 percent since 2001, while all other types of hospitals have decreased. One in six hospital beds in the US is now in a Catholic hospital. Many hospitals brand themselves with more neutral-sounding names, and these were the Catholic hospitals that the women we talked to had the hardest time identifying.
Our research shows that the vast majority of women want to know up front that a hospital has these restrictions so they can make informed choices about their care. However, there are currently very few requirements for hospitals to be up front about the fact that they won't provide the full spectrum of reproductive healthcare services.
What can you do if you want access to the best possible reproductive health care? Don't wait until you're in the middle of a healthcare crisis. Do your research now.
- Use the Catholic Healthcare Association directory to see if your hospital is a member.
- Search online for comments and reviews.
- Call your hospital and ask them if they provide full-spectrum reproductive health care.
- Tell your friends — we need to educate more women about these restrictions.
We all deserve to make informed decisions about where we seek reproductive health care. Understanding your hospital's religious affiliation is a good place to start.