Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Using Patients And Catholic Hospitals For The New Evangelization

In the Catholic Health Care System the ethical decisions of the beginning of life and the end of life are the Bishops, not yours, not an ethics committee.

Angela Bonavoglia - Hffington Post - 6/702010

So many things are galling about Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted's excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride, a member of St. Joseph's Hospital Ethics Committee, for approving the termination of the life-threatening, 11-week-old pregnancy of a 27-year-old mother of four that it's hard to know where to begin. But surely one of the most urgent issues this case raises is the danger faced by any woman who sets foot in a Catholic hospital in the midst of a reproductive crisis.

Just to recap, late last year a critically-ill pregnant woman was brought into St. Joseph's suffering from pulmonary hypertension. Her pregnancy posed such a burden to her heart and lungs that carrying it to term almost certainly would have killed her. Sister Margaret approved the decision of the physicians, the patient, and her family to terminate the pregnancy.
When Olmsted learned that this procedure had taken place, all hell broke loose. Without a scintilla of empathy or sympathy for the dying woman and her family, Olmsted said: "The direct killing of an unborn child is always immoral, no matter the circumstances." Since the abortion was not "indirect" (i.e., the byproduct of another procedure necessary to save the mother's life, such as removing a cancerous uterus), the correct moral action, according to Olmsted and the Phoenix diocese, was this: Let the mother and the fetus die.

We do not know how often such decisions come up in Catholic hospitals. Nor do we know if any go the other way -- that is, the beliefs of the Olmsteds of the Church prevail and discharge is followed by a funeral. What we do know is that Catholic hospitals, charged with abiding by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, pose a real danger to women's health and lives.

"One of the most troubling areas is in the treatment of reproductive emergencies," says Lois Uttley, director of the MergerWatch Project, which works with communities facing Catholic-non-Catholic hospital mergers to preserve reproductive health services. A miscarriage in progress is an example of the emergencies Uttley is referencing. When it happens so early in pregnancy that the fetus cannot survive, the pregnancy has to be terminated quickly. Unfortunately, explains Uttley, in some Catholic hospitals, this isn't what happens; the fetal heartbeat has to stop before doctors can do the procedure.

The disturbing findings of a report published in late 2008 in the American Journal of Public Health bear this out. The researchers set out to explore the impact of residency abortion training on the medical practices of a sample of ob-gyns. In the course of conducting their interviews, they got an unexpected glimpse into the conflicts posed by the Directives for physicians attempting to manage miscarriages.

One doctor working at a Catholic hospital reported receiving a woman whose pregnancy "was very early, 14 weeks," with "a hand sticking out of the cervix," indicating that "clearly the membranes had ruptured and she was trying to deliver." Because there was still a fetal heart rate, the ethics committee refused to approve the abortion; they sent the woman to another institution 90 miles away. (This scenario could easily happen in large Western States where Catholic hospitals are frequently the only source of medical care in smaller communities and the next hospital really is ninety miles away. It's one thing when this happens because a hospital doesn't have the expertise or equipment, but refusing an emergency procedure any doctor could do is a different story.)

Another doctor, at an academic medical center, reported that a Catholic-owned hospital called to ask her to accept a pregnant miscarrying patient who was already septic and hemorrhaging. She urged them to do the uterine aspiration themselves, but they refused. That doctor accepted the patient and did the procedure, but saw this case as a form of "patient dumping." She reported the hospital for an Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act violation. (As well she should have.)

Obviously and fundamentally, the question is this: Why does a woman lying at death's door have to worry about whether a procedure that will save her life violates the so-called "ethical" Directives of a religion she doesn't belong to or long ago abandoned, Directives that treat women as disposable delivery systems for new humans, while flying in the face of standard, approved medical practice?

One answer is that the original conscience clauses, approved by Congress after the passage of Roe v. Wade, have been bastardized. They now apply not only to people -- physicians and nurses who oppose abortion -- but to institutions whose "consciences" trump not only the patient's own conscience, but also violate her right to informed consent and to medically indicated care. (If Catholic hospitals can't in their 'conscience' provide basic emergency care they should close their doors to all but like minded Catholics.)

We need more research into how often and in what ways physicians compromise patient care as a result of the Catholic Directives. But for now, the experience of the nameless, faceless, pregnant woman who Bishop Olmstead would have sentenced to death (rather than having her live "the rest of her existence having had her child killed," which is how the diocesan statement put it) is a cautionary tale.

Unless you are a deeply devoted Catholic and want your local bishop to make your most intimate medical decisions, when the ambulance pulls up, be ready. Have your own ethical and moral directive saying: Do Not Take Me to a Catholic Hospital. If for no other reason than this: there may not be a Sister Margaret in the house. (This decision coupled with the recent Directive 58 on palliative care, which also ignores patient desires irrespective of religious affiliation, is more than reason enough to carry such a card.)


The medical ramifications for Catholic hospitals and their patients has actually been a bigger deal to me than the excommunication of Sr. McBride. Decisions made which place the conscience of an institution over the direct wishes of patients may not matter much on the East Coast but it is a big deal in larger states with few communities that are big enough to support multiple hospitals. In many cases the first medical hospital opened under the auspices of a Catholic missionary group and it is still the only hospital. The idea of a ninety mile transport of a critical patient under these guidelines is all too real.

Out in the West we all come to terms with the fact these situations may very well happen to us and that we may in fact die in transit. But I don't think too many of us women are prepared to die in transit because the local Catholic hospital places fidelity to the dictates of the USCCB over the reality of their ability to save our lives.

I still maintain that this was a dictatorial political move on the part of Olmstead and had nothing to do with pastoral concern. Why else fail to mention that Canon Law also calls for the excommunication of the parents who must have made the final decision? Why single out McBride if this was not strictly for the purposes of reigning in Catholic hospitals, to force them to comply to USCCB directives. I also wouldn't be surprised if Olmstead and his pro life absolutist saw this situation as another potential legal battle in restricting access to legal abortion.

In general the abortion debate centers around the availability of legal abortion as a means of birth control. The debate rarely gets into the 'life of the mother' end of things. This is the loophole that absolutists see as the beginning of the slope that leads to full legalization. If a legal case can be made for Catholic hospitals which closes this loophole, it's another legal victory in the war to make abortion legal in the abstract but impossible in reality. This is exactly the kind of case which pro lifer's would love to take before this current Supreme Court. It would hardly shock me if this Court decided an institutional conscience trumped a woman's right to life.

The USCCB and the Vatican have been using the US Catholic medical system to leverage the American political system. It started first in the Terry Schiavo case and resulted in Directive 58, which was based on the personal opinion of John Paul II. Olmstead has taken this one step further in Phoenix. Not surprising that a bishop would assert his canonical authority over Catholic hospitals shortly after the Catholic Health Association took the opposite position from the USCCB on health care reform and it's supposed promotion of abortion. The CHA stand undercut this use of the Catholic health care system for the USCCB's 'evangelization' program.

This is a story that won't die because it shouldn't die. There are more agendas at work here than just whether or not Sr McBride deserved excommunication. In the meantime what's the life of one poor mother or the religious life of one poor sister when it comes to jamming USCCB ethical directives on the rest of us. So what if we die, or have to live on tubes until it bankrupts our family, it's for the good of our souls. In the meantime I have a directive which precludes Catholic hospitals for end of life care--for the good of my life.


  1. Excellent points Colleen. Olmsted is being dictatorial and why was the mother not excommunicated? Good question.

    Freedom of conscience and religion do not exist for anyone but the Vatican and Bishops..... these men are flexing their tyrannical muscles instead of flexing some pastoral concern for a mother and her four other children and her husband.

    I gave birth to my son in a Catholic hospital. A priest visited the room and was so very nice to the out of wedlock young hispanic girl who just gave birth and treated me, white and married, like a piece of crap. He wanted to know what parish I was in. We just moved there and I did not know. His rudeness towards me was so pathetic. There is no way I would be caught in a Catholic hospital again, knowing the ignorant types that are "evangelizing" hospitals.

    These people such as Bishop Olmsted are monsters and creatures of death for women everywhere!!

  2. It would also seem that a hand sticking out of the cervix and the patient being septic are reason to abort the pregnancy, as the pregnancy is no longer a valid pregnancy that is pro-life for the mother or the child. For Christ's sake already. These idiot Bishops should not get away with this crap. They are not doctors, they are abusing their priesthood and their thinking is toxic waste!

    word verification: outed

  3. I absolutely believed I was a pro-life Catholic until I read everything about this tragedy. Via my informed conscience (of faith, WWJD, common sense, logic, reason, humanity & compassion) I am pro-choice as I without question see why abortion must be legal in some measure.

  4. Soothing music. A forest grove. A bishop - in a long velvet train, carried by altar boys, flanked by candles, leads a procession. Ladies with rosaries line the path. As a voice intones:

    Prenatal to Grave... we will take TOTAL CONTROL of your health care. Forget about "needs" - just place yourself our ecclesiastic hands.

    Cut to a horrified onlooker, who cries:

    "The same hands that abused children will also abuse you..."

  5. Murder is very much on the agenda of our hierarchy -- how many hundreds of thousands have died in agony because of the false teaching of Humanae Vitae and its absolutistic implementation? As to abortion, it is an obsession of strange men like John Paul II, that has wrought havoc in countless women's lives, killing an unknown number of them.

  6. There was another story on Huffpo the other day about Saudi Arabia where a female college student passed out in class. The staff called for emergency help and then campus security refused to let the EMT's on the campus because they were male and if they assisted the female student they would compromise the honor of her male relatives. During the theological debate and loop hole search, the girl died.

    This exact same scenario could easily have happened in the Phoenix case. Why is it that male religious figures can so easily sacrifice women they don't know for the sake of the integrity of their religious rules? Why have both Christianity and Islam strayed so far from the intent of their founders? Why must women and children pay the price?

    Seems to me there is a fundamental confusion between religion and the spiritual path. Religions should lay down a foundation for living a spiritual life which ultimately transcends the foundational religion. This is exactly the path Jesus took. He transcended the religion of Judaism by living His understanding of the spiritual path Judaism started Him on.

    One of the reasons I really dislike the self comparison of the Church with 'mother' is because real parents want their children to surpass them, to have a better life, to know more, to be better. With 'mother' church it's exactly the opposite, as if spirituality exists in a separate class where there is no progress, nothing more to be learned, no greater vision to be had, no chance to see or hear as Jesus did. I don't buy it.

  7. That is a very good suggestion: Add a directive that for end-of-life care I not be taken to a Catholic hospital for any reason. I see I have more updates to make to some of my legal paperwork.

    And I do live in an area where the local hospital had been run strictly by the local government/hospital board. Until the chain of Catholic hospitals in this area bought it out and turned it into a Catholic Hospital. The next nearest non-Catholic hospital is another 60 miles down the road. Somehow I don't think in an emergency, the ambulance is going to drive the extra 60 miles no matter what my spouse tells them.

    I'm seriously starting to think about a society where ALL health care is both non-profit AND totally secular in nature. Because otherwise human beings are treated as either profit centers or cattle upon which to practice one's own 'conscience' regardless of the wishes of the patient.