If a recent ACLU/MergerWatch report on Catholic hospitals were a patient, it might be in critical condition – not only for its negative tone, but for the reaction it drew from Catholic officials, who said it paints a distorted and inaccurate view of Catholic healthcare.
In May, the American Civil Liberties Union and MergerWatch – a watchdog group that analyzes community impact on hospital mergers – issued a report titled “Health Care Denied: Patients and Physicians Speak Out About Catholic Hospitals and the Threat to Women’s Health and Lives.”
A summary of that report noted it details how directives governing Catholic hospitals “prohibit a range of reproductive health care services, even when a woman’s life or health is in jeopardy.”
The report highlights cases of several women who had pregnancies with serious medical complications, and alleges that Catholic hospitals’ refusal to provide abortions or tubal ligations endangers women’s lives.
Sister Carol Keehan, President and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, said in an interview with Crux that the ACLU report is “grossly unfair, distorted and dishonest” in making general accusations that women’s care is unsafe in Catholic maternity units.
In a statement, she had noted that some of the report’s allegations “have been the subject of since-dismissed lawsuits… To frighten families with scary, one-sided stories and exaggerated data is grossly disrespectful to the thousands of physicians, midwives and nurses working in Catholic hospitals who are so devoted to their patients and to the care they deliver.”
The Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul noted that those caregivers at Catholic hospitals continue a two-century legacy of caring for families – “both in the joy of welcoming an infant or in the pain of losing one.”
According to CHA statistics, in 2014 more than 534,000 births were reported in the nation’s Catholic hospitals. That same year, those facilities admitted 5 million patients and saw 20 million ER visits and more than 100 million outpatient visits.
Each year, the nation’s more than 600 Catholic hospitals also provide hundreds of millions of dollars worth of charity care to the poor at hospitals and in community health centers.
Keehan told Crux that Catholic hospitals are subject to the same licensing and accrediting standards as public institutions, “and they would never accredit hospitals if they had policies that were unsafe for patients.”
Many of those Catholic hospitals are licensed as high-risk centers for obstetrics, she added.
The ACLU/MergerWatch report was highly critical of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services, the guidelines by which Catholic hospitals operate. Keehan noted those rules are consistent with Catholic teaching and “the delivery of safe, effective medical care,” emphasizing care for the poor and the vulnerable while safeguarding the dignity of all human life.
Issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the directives reflect Catholic teaching in not allowing practices such as abortion, sterilizations and euthanasia.
New clinical information and health care delivery changes have led to those directives being modified many times over the years, Keehan said, but she added that should be done with “respectful dialogue” and not attacks.
She said the ACLU seems to have “a vendetta” against Catholic health care institutions and would like to force them to adopt secular rather than Catholic values, especially in the area of what they call reproductive care.
“They would like to be the arbiter of what we can and cannot do, and that just is not going to happen,” she said.
Jesuit Father Kevin FitzGerald, the Dr. David Lauler Chair of Catholic Health Care Ethics in the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University, also criticized the ACLU/MergerWatch report, saying he was saddened by “the sloppy research and reasoning that permeated the report,” and the report writers’ misunderstanding of the meaning and intent of the Catholic medical directives.
The priest, who is also an associate professor in the Department of Oncology at the Georgetown University Medical Center, said the writers criticize the fact that in some cases, Catholic institutions are the only healthcare providers in a community, but they don’t understand why that is the case.
In a statement to Crux, he said, “It was the very principles of caring for each and all, from the beginning to the end of life, that led many Catholic sisters and nuns to bring healthcare to communities that had none.”
Another recent report from MergerWatch on the growth of Catholic hospitals and health systems found that “one in six acute care hospital beds is in a facility that is Catholic owned or operated,” and “there are 46 Catholic-restricted hospitals that are the sole community providers of short-term acute hospital care for people living in their geographic regions.”
That MergerWatch report on Catholic healthcare updated an earlier one titled “Miscarriage of Medicine” and was funded by groups including the Ford Foundation and what the agency called “our advocacy partners at the ACLU.”
A summary of the ACLU/MergerWatch report on maternity care at Catholic hospitals called for policies ensuring that “all hospitals, regardless of religious affiliation, are required by federal law to provide emergency reproductive health care.”
FitzGerald said the sponsors of that report do not seem to understand that Catholic healthcare institutions must “care for both the mother and her developing child.”
“Even if the members of the ACLU have no regard for fetal human life, surely they could comprehend that others who do might pursue quality healthcare in a manner that cherishes and protects the lives of both mother and fetus – especially those who might not otherwise receive healthcare at all,” the Catholic medical ethicist said.
Lois Uttley, the director of MergerWatch who was an author of the report on the growth of Catholic hospitals, told Reuters, “In general, Catholic hospitals provide excellent care. Our concern is with these restrictions on reproductive health care.”
The critics of the recent MergerWatch/ACLU reports include Deirdre McQuade, the assistant director of pro-life communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.
In a statement to Crux, McQuade said that objective studies have found Catholic and other religious hospitals rank among the nation’s highest providers of quality healthcare.
“Catholic healthcare means life-affirming, life-saving access to the best medical care that respects the dignity of every person, especially those most in need,” she said.
McQuade said that “prepackaged reports from the ACLU” seem more geared toward promoting a political agenda than advocating for women’s health.
“Even during the most difficult pregnancy, women can be assured of the Church’s commitment to every life, including and especially that of the mother,” McQuade said. She added that “reproductive healthcare” are code words “to force Catholic doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers to perform abortions against their conscience.”
While the recent reports from MergerWatch and the ACLU criticize Catholic hospitals’ reliance on directives that reflect Church teaching, Keehan said that for the nation’s Catholic healthcare facilities, there is no dichotomy between providing medical care and following Catholic principles.
Catholic health care is committed to the whole person at all stages of life, and is a ministry, not a business, she said.
“We’ve always been able to serve the country and its health needs and be true to our faith,” Keehan said. “I think we still can. It makes us better caregivers.”