Placing dogma above patient needs

FFRF warns Washington about Catholic hospital takeover

A national state/church watchdog is warning that Washingtonians are rapidly losing access to constitutionally protected forms of health care as Catholic medical organizations take over the state system.

Soon almost half of Washington's hospital beds will be under the control of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' directives. Catholic medical care is obligated to abide by the "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services." Over a quarter of the counties in the state will have no remaining secular hospitals. This means it will be much harder or impossible for patients to find local hospitals willing to provide a full range of health care.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., with 19,000 members including over 1,000 members in Washington state, sent a letter on June 24 warning government officials and Washington medical and hospital associations about the health care crisis. FFRF also contacted eight secular medical institutions that are in the process of considering or have recently affiliated with Catholic organizations.

Swedish Medical Center, Seattle's largest nonprofit health care provider, recently affiliated with the Catholic organization Providence Health and Services. Three major hospitals in the state's northwest corner (Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon, Island Hospital in Anacortes, and Cascade Valley Hospital in Arlington) are also considering affiliating with Providence, or PeaceHealth, another Catholic organization.

Citizens in Washington are swiftly losing access to constitutionally protected forms of medical care as Catholic organizations restrict "morally bankrupt" procedures, placing dogma and church doctrine above patient care. This takeover is resulting in inadequate access and treatment for conception, contraception, abortion, miscarriage, voluntary sterilization and end-of-life care. It may also lead to discrimination based on marital status or sexual orientation.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel explained why the mergers and negotiating with these organizations will center on prohibiting services, not providing them: "Catholic health organizations are committed to church doctrine above all. They are driven primarily by religious beliefs, not by the tenets and ethics of the medical profession. All three Roman Catholic medical organizations seeking these mergers express their mission, purpose and work as rooted in the Catholic religion. They impose the Catholic religion on all patients, regardless of their beliefs."

These Catholic organizations prohibit all forms of abortion, including instances in which the woman's life or health is endangered and in cases of incest and rape. Testing on embryonic blastocysts to be used in research for the promising stem-cell fields is also barred.

Contraception, another medically sound health practice deemed "intrinsically immoral" by the Catholic Church, is banned. In vitro fertilization, the use of sperm donors and surrogate parenting are also out, since they involve fertilization outside the woman's body. It uses eggs and sperm from a woman and a man who are not married and involve the participation of someone other than the married couple.

Seidel wrote: "Every 'contraceptive intervention' approved by the medical profession should be available to the patients, whether or not it was also approved by the Pope. Patients have the right to make their own decisions about conceiving children, without the involvement of the Catholic Church. This all-male conclave of professional celibates has no business dictating terms that deny the health and wellness of others, especially women."

Sterilization is also forbidden in Catholic-merged hospitals, even when it can save the patient's life. Assisted suicide, which is legal in Washington, is not permitted by the Catholic Church. These rules from the Bishops' Directives clearly state in Directive 61, regarding life support and Death with Dignity: "Patients experiencing suffering that cannot be alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering."

"Redemptive suffering" is another term that clearly illustrates that the Catholic Church's understanding of health care is primitive and draconian compared to modern medical standards. Seidel explains, "The Catholic translation of 'pain management' is to re-label pain as 'good' pain. This is a perfect example of the harm caused by mixing theology with medicine."

Patients' will be forced to accept treatment not decided by themselves or their family, but by clergy on a hospitals ethics committee. Citizens should not be forced to choose between inadequate access to medical care and traveling to a different county to get the treatment they need. Religious restrictions on medical care are well-documented to cause patients' lives to be endangered and even lost.

"In many cases, the institutions have been and may continue to be funded (at least in part) by money from local and federal taxpayer," Seidel stated. "Not only does tax money going to religious organizations entail constitutional concerns, but it betrays local residents and taxpayers for hospitals to take their money then deny them medical services."

"Should patients be proselytized rather than treated? Don't let the Catholic Church take over health care in Washington," FFRF argued.

Governor Jay Inslee, who received FFRF's legal letter, has expressed his concerns over the takeover. FFRF urges Washington to stop allowing previously Catholic-affiliated medical institutions to restrict patients' access to the full range of their legal, medically approved, and constitutionally protected options in health care.

FFRF thanks our legal intern Charles Roslof for assisting with this case.

-Compiled by Lauryn Seering

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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