A February 21, 2012 New York Times article entitled “Catholic Hospitals Expand, Religious Strings Attached” addresses the challenges that arise when Catholic healthcare systems acquire healthcare providers and extend religious proscriptions to the newly acquired facilities and practitioners. Specifically, the article raises concerns about women’s access to reproductive health services, particularly in communities where Catholic ownership of hospitals and other providers dominates. Much of this same kind of market activity occurred in the early 90’s in anticipation of market reforms associated with Clinton healthcare reform. So, while these are not new issues, they are no less difficult to resolve, perhaps in part because we have all become more politicized in our approach to problem solving, which almost seems impossible to imagine, but there it is. In a 1995 Houston Law Review article entitled DECIDING THE FATE OF RELIGIOUS HOSPITALS IN THE EMERGING HEALTH CARE MARKET I attempted to propose a middle ground of accommodation that would facilitate access to care while providing Catholic healthcare providers with the space required to continue to be true to their religious beliefs. I believe that the prescription remains as valid today as it was when written over a decade ago.
Catholic healthcare comprises a ministry, whereby the sisters or diocese that provide the health services are committed to ensure that they act in way that is true to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Catholic healthcare providers are living the gospel, which is replete with instances of Jesus ministering to the sick — he attended to healing the mind, body and spirit. This holistic healing mission began when various religious orders first established their hospitals, and continues today, albeit with fewer religious and more laypersons continuing the legacy of the Catholic healthcare mission. Catholic healthcare has served an essential role in the United States since the nation’s inception, frequently being the only provider of care to the poor in numerous communities. That dedication to the vulnerable segments of society continues today. Catholic healthcare providers were the first in many communities to treat compassionately, without judgment and without discriminating, those with HIV/AIDS. Mission statements for Catholic providers focus on ensuring care to the homeless, to immigrants, whether documented or not, and to the underserved and uninsured. According to statistics available on the Catholic Health Association web page, Catholic healthcare is a national leader in its provision of birthing rooms and breast cancer treatment, geriatric services, nutrition programs, social work services and pain management programs. The disappearance of Catholic hospitals would decimate access to care in rural communities. Catholic hospitals have long been on the forefront of the call for healthcare reform that provides access to all, and support President Obama’s health reform efforts.
Catholic hospitals’ delivery of healthcare is informed by Catholic Social Teaching broadly and specifically by what are called The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which are promulgated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Catholic Social Teaching rests on centuries of philosophical and theological learning to guide not only the Church but society in general on such questions as the relationship between labor and capital, the respectful treatment of employees and the importance of unions to workers, distribution of goods and services, and human rights to social goods such as health care. The Ethical and Religious Directives, which are informed by Catholic teaching, are moral guidelines specific to healthcare, to aid in resolving such ethical issues as pregnancy termination, contraception, and euthanasia. Obviously, the clinical situations in which these guidelines are implicated can be extremely complex, and sometimes require nuanced analysis by those with a deep understanding of Catholic moral theology and medicine. Like any intellectual discipline, theologians, bishops, and healthcare providers sometimes disagree among themselves as to the appropriate application of these guidelines to a specific situation. So, yes, it is true that Catholic healthcare providers are committed by their religious beliefs to operate in ways that may be different than secular providers, but these differences extend far beyond the moral limitations on the kinds of reproductive and end-of-life care they provide. This moral framework serves to unleash the kind of compassionate care that has been a hallmark of Catholic healthcare since its inception. Even in the face of severe budget cuts, Catholic hospitals continue to provide pastoral care to their patients, caregivers, and families; engage in constant assessment of fidelity to mission; and have been leaders of all hospitals with regard to measuring tax-exempt facilities’ provision of community benefits.
My ultimate point is two-fold. First, Catholic healthcare is too important to the country’s healthcare system to be reduced in our assessment of its value to religious proscriptions that may interfere with access to a limited universe of services, albeit what are sometimes characterized as essential healthcare services. While some may dissent from application of Catholic teaching in particular instances, the continued and pervasive presence of health providers committed to the dignity of every person whom they treat is an ultimate societal good. Where disagreement persists, it is important that the Church engage in sincere dialogue with all segments of society, with a willingness to be informed from medical, ethical, and sociological perspectives.
As Catholic providers partner, merge or otherwise collaborate with secular healthcare providers, community stakeholders, including licensing agencies, should demand and receive a clear understanding of the implications for healthcare access of the proposed alliance. Each bishop acts as the ultimate arbiter of the Ethical and Religious Directives, which means that interpretations can vary by diocese. For example, a minority of bishops have raised questions about the kind of emergency care administered by hospital emergency departments to rape survivors, out of an over-abundance of medical and moral caution, in my view, that the treatment might interfere with a pregnancy. Thus, it is essential that regulators understand the implications of Catholic teachings for healthcare access, so that patients clearly understand the limitations of Catholic providers and, where appropriate, have alternatives to access services. Our healthcare system has and will likely always be extremely pluralistic. We have, and should continue to make every effort, to accommodate the religious beliefs of providers, while ensuring access to care to which patients are legally entitled.
Further, the public debate about what kind of care should be legally available should take seriously the perspective of those whose viewpoints are informed by moral concerns, whether those concerns arise from religious or philosophical principles. Finally, both The United States Catholic Conference and individual bishops should ensure that they receive a robust analysis of ethical issues related to healthcare from the Church’s best theologians with relevant expertise before promulgating guidance to those engaged in healthcare ministry. Importantly, bishops should also hear from those who are involved daily in caring for and ministering to patients.
The ultimate goal of reform is one upon which both Catholic healthcare providers and proponents of women’s health agree — increased access to healthcare for all. Collaboration on the pursuit of this unified goal should enable us to identify means by which the plural interests of the stakeholders can be accomplished. Transparency and conversation are key to achieving these ends. In my conversations with those concerned about changes in the healthcare delivery system, I have always found them to be very respectful of religious freedom, appreciative of the role religious providers play in society, and desirous of finding a common way forward. While the number of religious sisters is shrinking in the United States, women remain a significant presence in the leadership of Catholic healthcare. A cursory review of the areas where Catholic healthcare predominates reveals a strong commitment to women’s health and wellness. For these reasons, I feel confident that common ground exists to ensure access to health care for all, while carving out space for Catholic fidelity to the demands of their religion.