CHA says article ‘perpetuates myth’ Catholic hospitals’ pro-life stance ‘constrains’ care for women

Mercy Sister Mary Haddad, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, is pictured in this 2016 file photo. In a statement Feb. 19, 2024, Sister Haddad said a Feb. 17 article in USA Today by KFF Health News “perpetuates the myth” that Catholic hospitals’ mission to uphold the sacredness of life, “from conception to natural death,” results in a lower standard of medical care especially for pregnant women. (OSV News photo/Chris Ryan, courtesy CHA)

By Kate Scanlon

WASHINGTON — The head of the Catholic Health Association of the United States called it “extremely disappointing” that a USA Today article published Feb. 17 “suggested that Catholic health care’s long-standing commitment to providing care that recognizes the sacredness of each individual — from conception to natural death — somehow constrains care.”

Mercy Sister Mary Haddad, president and CEO, made the comments in a Feb. 19 statement issued in response to an article by KFF Health News in the daily newspaper alleging Catholic hospitals “constrain medical care” in the U.S. because the church’s health care directives “are often at odds with accepted medical standards, especially in areas of reproductive health.”

The article “perpetuates the myth that because Catholic health care providers do not perform elective abortions and remain committed to protecting and upholding the dignity of every human life, our hospitals somehow do not follow accepted medical standards,”
Sister Haddad said.

KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News, describes itself as “a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues.”

In one example, the KFF Health News article cited a story that a nurse midwife shared about a woman who was hospitalized after her water broke too early in her pregnancy for her unborn child to be considered medically viable and who was denied an abortion because the unborn child still had a heartbeat. According to the article, the woman “was hospitalized for days before going into labor … and the baby died.”

That event purportedly took place before the Supreme Court’s June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that reversed its previous abortion precedent calling it a constitutional right. Another instance in the article mentioned a woman who sought a sterilizing procedure after Dobbs from her Catholic provider, but had to go elsewhere because the provider declined it. The hospital’s directives on such procedures, however, did not change as a result of Dobbs.

“The fact is that Catholic hospitals in the United States are held to the exact same clinical standards of care and adhere to the same policies as every other hospital in the country,” Sister Haddad said.

“Contrary to what was reported in the article, Catholic medical providers who care for pregnant women follow guidelines set forth by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG),” she said, adding that the article “relies on the opinions of two individuals to make the sweeping claim” that the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Services, or ERDs, “contradict ACOG guidelines.”

“There is nothing in the ERDs that prohibits a Catholic health care provider from providing medically indicated care to a woman who is suffering from serious or life-threatening conditions during pregnancy,” Sister Haddad said.

Since Dobbs, states across the country have alternately moved to restrict or expand access to abortion, creating a new legal and political landscape for the procedure, impacting in some cases how hospitals approach abortion.

The Catholic Church opposes abortion, outlining its teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that human life “must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.” Because abortion takes the life of an already conceived child, it is “gravely contrary to the moral law,” the catechism says.

The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services reflect that teaching; however, that document also states that “operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.” That guidance forbids direct abortions but permits “indirect abortions,” procedures where the immediate purpose is to save the mother’s life, where the death of the unborn child “is foreseen but unavoidable.”

Sister Haddad said that while there “has been a renewed focus on abortion following the 2022 Dobbs decision, the very complex and nuanced treatment decisions physicians must consider in the care for a mother and her baby during pregnancy complications are often overlooked and misconstrued to foster distrust.”

“The abortion debate does not always account for the various ethical and clinical decisions that are required to ensure the best possible outcomes for both the mother and baby,” she said.

The KFF Health News article also claimed that “more and more women are running into barriers to obtaining care as Catholic health systems have aggressively acquired secular hospitals in much of the country.”

“Four of the 10 largest U.S. hospital chains by number of beds are Catholic, according to federal data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality,” it said. “There are just over 600 Catholic general hospitals nationally and roughly 100 more managed by Catholic chains that place some religious limits on care, a KFF Health News investigation reveals.”
Sister Haddad, however, said the article “incorrectly states that Catholic hospitals are rapidly expanding across the U.S.”

“The number of Catholic hospitals has remained relatively stable during the past three decades, increasing by six percent since 2000 in the face of unprecedented challenges impacting all aspects of health care,” she said.

According to KFF Health News, nearly 800,000 people have only Catholic or Catholic-affiliated birth hospitals within an hour’s drive, citing “pockets of the Pacific Northwest, the Dakotas, and the Midwest” as examples. But Sister Haddad said that the presence of Catholic hospitals in underserved areas is a core part of their mission.

“The article is correct that Catholic hospitals are often the only medical facilities serving rural areas,” she said. “This is due to our long-standing commitment to care for patients in need, especially women, children, and those in underserved communities. When other health care providers decide to leave rural markets for financial reasons, Catholic health systems often remain or step in to ensure rural residents continue to have access to high-quality, life-saving care.”

Sister Haddad said she also had concerns about the article’s “implied attack on the role of spirituality in health care.”

“The authors make a point to report about a blessing that occurred in a hospital, which apparently was included to underscore the false premise that Catholic teaching and science are incompatible,” Sister Haddad said. “On the contrary, Catholic hospitals see our faith as a call to ensure everyone has access to quality, compassionate care, regardless of one’s religion, race, ethnicity, gender, or other identity.”

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