The Catholic Church continues to lose followers for awful decisions like the one it made last week to strip an Arizona hospital of its official religious status because it performed an emergency abortion to save the life of the mother.
The controversy has the ACLU appealing to the federal government to ensure that emergency contraceptives and abortions remain available at Catholic hospitals.
In a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the ACLU said "the refusal by religiously affiliated hospitals to provide abortion and other services was becoming an increasing problem."
Their complaint stems from a Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted's decision to strip St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix of its Catholic status after staff doctors performed an abortion to save a mother's life late last year.
The bishop who oversees the hospital excommunicated a nun who was involved in the decision-making process last Tuesday and announced that the hospital could no longer call itself Catholic because he discovered it had been providing women with "birth-control pills and other forms of contraception" and sterilizations and abortions in certain situations.
The medical center followed with a very brave announcement of its own last Tuesday, saying it will continue to provide life-saving abortion care to patients even though it means losing its affiliation with the local Roman Catholic Diocese.
This commendable decision by St. Joseph’s and the hospital network that oversees it, Catholic Healthcare West, upholds important legal and moral principles. It also underscores the need to ensure that religiously affiliated hospitals comply with their legal duty to provide emergency reproductive care.
Advocates for reproductive rights are concerned that as Catholic hospital chains take over more hospitals, it will become more difficult for women to access contraception and medically necessary abortions.
The controversy stems from an incident in November 2009, when a 27-year-old mother of four in her third month of pregnancy arrived at St. Joseph’s. She was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a serious complication that might well have killed her if she had continued the pregnancy.
The hospital performed an abortion, leading Bishop Olmsted to declare Sister Margaret McBride, a member of the hospital’s ethics committee, “automatically excommunicated” because she had consented to the therapeutic abortion necessary to save the woman’s life.
Last week, Bishop Olmsted said he no longer had confidence that the administration of St. Joseph's Hospital would run it according to Catholic teachings, "and therefore this hospital cannot be considered Catholic."
Leaders of the institution, founded in 1895 by a Catholic order, the Sisters of Mercy, said it would continue to operate "in the Catholic tradition" but without the official sanction of the church.
"I have hoped and prayed that this day would not come," the bishop was quoted as saying at a news conference. "However, the faithful of the diocese have a right to know whether institutions of this importance are indeed Catholic in identity and practice."
Just last month, Bishop Olmsted threatened to remove his endorsement of the hospital unless he received a written acknowledgment that the abortion violated Catholic policy and “will never occur again at St. Joseph’s Hospital.”
The hospital has steadfastly refused to bow to these demands, summing up its position with elegant simplicity: “Morally, ethically, and legally we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save.”
It is hardly reassuring that following the incident at St. Joseph’s, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said Sister Margaret was properly punished and seconded Bishop Olmsted’s stance against providing the abortion, even to save a woman’s life.
No one has suggested that Catholic hospitals should be required to perform nonemergency abortions. But as St. Joseph’s recognized, the need to accommodate religious doctrine does not give health providers serving the general public license to jeopardize women’s lives.
The hospital's president, Linda Hunt, said she was "deeply saddened" by Olmsted's decision, adding, "The fact that this situation stems from our decision to save a young woman's life is particularly sad."
This is no small matter. Catholic hospitals account for about 15 percent of the nation’s hospital beds and are the only hospital facilities in many communities. Months ago, the American Civil Liberties Union asked the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services to investigate reported instances where religious doctrine prevailed over the need for emergency reproductive care, and to issue a formal clarification that denying such treatment violates federal law.
As previously mentioned, St. Joseph's is run by San Francisco-based Catholic Healthcare West, which operates more than 40 hospitals and clinics in California, Arizona and Nevada.
— The Curator