The New York Times was “inaccurate and irresponsible” to claim that Catholic hospitals' refusal to perform abortions threatens pregnant mothers in obstetric emergencies, the Catholic Health Association says.
“Catholic hospitals in the United States have a stellar history of caring for mothers and infants,” the association said Dec. 9. “Hundreds of thousands of patients have received extraordinary care – both in the joy of welcoming an infant or in the pain of losing one.”
The health association said that in many communities, the Catholic hospital is “the designated center for high-risk pregnancies.”
Several independent organizations have oversight responsibility for all hospitals, including the Joint Commission and state licensing agencies that accredit and certify hospitals. These organizations have “robust standards and inspections” and would not “in any circumstance” accredit or license a hospital unsafe for mothers or infants.
The association – which is the largest U.S. organization of Catholic health care systems and facilities – stressed that health professionals are also committed to care for these mothers and “would not tolerate working in a clinical setting that is detrimental to their patients.”
Its statement comes in response to a Dec. 8 editorial in the Sunday New York Times that claimed mergers between Catholic hospitals and non-Catholic hospitals is a “threat.” Catholic hospitals' refusals to perform abortions, the newspaper editorial board claimed, harm their ability to “provide care for women in medical distress.”
The newspaper's editorial board relied heavily upon the American Civil Liberties Union's federal lawsuit against the U.S. bishops on behalf of Tamesha Means, a Michigan woman. The lawsuit claims that Means was negligently treated at a Catholic hospital in 2010 when her water broke when she was 18 weeks pregnant.
Means made three visits to the emergency room, delivering the baby on the third visit. Her baby died less than three hours after birth, while she herself suffered severe pain and an infection. The lawsuit claims that the hospital should have told Means an abortion was an option and “the safest course.”
The legal group, which has a history of targeting Catholic institutions, is suing the U.S. bishops rather than the hospital on the grounds that the bishops set ethical practices for Catholic hospitals. Catholic teaching, reflected in the “Ethical and Religious Directives,” recognizes that abortion kills an innocent life and that the lives of both the mother and of the unborn baby deserve care.
In its editorial, the New York Times noted that Catholic hospitals have about 15 percent of the hospital beds in the country and are often the only facilities available in many communities.
The editorial claimed it is a violation of medical ethics and existing law to allow “religious doctrine to prevail over the need for competent emergency care and a woman’s right to complete and accurate information about her condition and treatment choices.”
The piece also denigrated religious freedom arguments, saying only that “the bishops are free to worship as they choose and advocate for their beliefs.” It added that religious beliefs should not “shield the bishops from legal accountability when church-affiliated hospitals following their rules cause patients harm.”
In their response, however, the Catholic Health Association strongly criticized the editorial.
“It is inaccurate and irresponsible to assert that these wonderful community services are unsafe for mothers in an obstetrical emergency, simply because a Catholic hospital adheres to the Ethical and Religious Directives,” the association said.
Such an assertion, the association said, “can be frightening to families and is grossly disrespectful to the thousands of physicians, midwives and nurses who are so devoted to their patients and to the care they deliver.”
The health group also questioned the New York Times editorial board’s assumption that abortion is a solution. In obstetric emergencies, the association noted, the unborn infant is “almost always much desired” and parents want “every option for saving their baby.”
“This is not a simple clinical situation that you ‘take care of’ and then move on,” the association said. “Anyone who has ever cared for these parents knows that this will always be the child they lost.”
The Catholic bishops’ ethical directives do not prevent the provision of quality care for mothers and infants in obstetrical emergencies, the Catholic Health association said.
“Their experience in hundreds of Catholic hospitals over centuries is outstanding testimony to that.”
The merits of the ACLU lawsuit have been challenged on both medical and legal grounds. U.S. bishops' conference president Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz on Dec. 6 said the lawsuit is “a clear violation of the First Amendment.”
Dr. Brian C. Calhoun, a professor and vice-chair in the obstetrics and gynecology department at West Virginia University-Charleston, told CNA Dec. 2 that abortion is “never necessary to save the life of the mother.”
He added that an abortion at 18 weeks is usually performed through “surgical dismemberment” and surgical abortions have “numerous” complications for a pregnant woman. The physician suggested the lawsuit is an attempt “to make abortion seem like a great idea.”
An unborn baby at 18 weeks is “essentially fully formed,” Calhoun said. The baby has a small human profile and is about 5.5 inches long and seven ounces in weight. He or she can make sucking motions with his or her mouth and can begin to hear, the Mayo Clinic website says. The mother can often feel the baby’s motions.
Catholic University of America law professor Mark Rienzi told CNA Dec. 4 said that the ACLU lawsuit ignores federal and state laws that protect the right of religious providers to refrain from providing or referring to abortions.
He said the lawsuit from the pro-abortion rights legal group was “an effort to drive people with different views out of the health care field.”
Should the lawsuit succeed, it would mean “a lot fewer health care providers,” said Rienzi, who specializes in constitutional law and religious liberty issues.