Hospital Mergers Are Threatening Reproductive Rights

Since the 1973 supreme court ruling Roe V. Wade, abortion and reproductive rights, on the whole, have become a popular political buzz issue for conservatives. Now, the composition of the Supreme Court appears to be primed for the overturning of the 1973 ruling. States such as Georgia have implemented law after law restricting women’s access to abortion and reproductive care to prompt a challenge to Roe. But, a more subtle attack on reproductive rights has been happening in American for decades. The merging of public hospitals with those of Catholic origins has disrupted women’s right to receiving reproductive care in many states.

Historically, Catholic hospitals have provided medical assistance to the poor​ and disadvantaged and were largely the basis of the modern healthcare system. To this day, care is guided by a set of principles deemed the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services, which are intended to ensure that medical practices in such facilities are guided by Catholic doctrines. Further, the influence of Catholicism on the healthcare field has steadily grown as, according to the ACLU, 1 in 6 patients in the United States will receive care in a facility that complies with these directives. 

man holding stethoscopeUnder the directives established by the church, many Catholic hospitals don't provide services that are considered to be extensions of a women's legal right to reproductive health and body autonomy. Doctor's in such settings are barred from providing procedures ranging from willful sterilization to abortion of an apoptotic pregnancy, a condition that can be life-threatening. The directives also severely limit the ability of a women to obtain prescriptions for birth control. They instead, offer ‘natural family planning’ services to married couples, suggesting practices such as the rhythm method requires extensive fertility tracking and is on average 76% effective at staving off pregnancy. Additionally, as reported by the ACLU's Health Care Denied campaign, women are turned away from such institutions during life-threatening medical emergencies. The report gave a voice to Jennafer Norris, a woman who was unable to undergo the process of tubal ligations, or getting your tubes tied, despite the fact that becoming pregnant again would be life-threatening. Norris stated, "they prohibited my doctor from providing the care I desperately needed. I don’t want other women to have to go through what I did.”

birth control methods against pink and yellow background

In a 2016 study conducted by MergerWatch, it was found that 30 Catholic hospitals were deemed ‘sole community hospitals’ for the areas in which they were situated, indicating that the nearest alternative hospital was at the minimum a 45-minute drive away. In some states such as Alaska, Washington, and Illinois, at least 40% of hospital beds in the state were owned by a Catholic affiliate, and in states such as Kentucky, Arkansas, and Michigan, 30% of hospital beds were provided by a Catholic entity. 

The dependency of many communities on such Catholic faith-based institutions is clear; however, from the standpoint of health, it brings about the question of equity in access to reproductive care. If Catholic hospitals are serving such a great number of communities across the United States, but refuse to provide certain services, then many women are being deprived of the opportunity to receive care which is either essential or within their rights to do so. Undoubtedly, these hospitals are providing essential care to patients that otherwise would have to travel long distances to receive medical attention. However, many believe that this dependency is depriving women of their right to reproductive medicine. To quote the ACLU Deputy Legal Director Louise Melling, "We all have a right to our religious beliefs—but that does not include the right to impose those beliefs on others, particularly when that means closing the door on patients seeking medical care."