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National Catholic Reporter

Group Pushes for Reproductive Services in Catholic Hospitals


One of the most consistent critics of Catholic health care nationwide is the organization Catholics for a Free Choice. It describes itself as “an independent not-for-profit organization engaged in research, policy analysis, education and advocacy on issues of gender equality and reproductive health.”

Its adversaries, such as the National Review Online’s Joel Mowbray, writing in Insight, a weekly newsmagazine published by The Washington Times group, calls it a “Catholic in name only” organization that “carefully and openly has cultivated a reputation with the secular media as a ‘Catholic alternative voice,’ [and the media] routinely cites its opinion as the lay Catholic viewpoint in opposition to the Catholic hierarchy.”

At the same time, some polls suggest that Catholics for a Free Choice’s views reflect not only where most Americans are on contraceptive and similar issues, but a significant number of Catholics, too.

The organization was founded in the 1970s by three members of the National Organization for Women, NOW, after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision established a woman’s right to abortion. Frances Kissling has been president since 1982.

Kissling recently told NCR, “We think Catholic hospitals and other health services often provide very good health care and honor a mission of service to the poor. We also think they are increasingly and necessarily run as a business. They are also scared to death of the Vatican and often do not provide services out of this fear.

“Our goal,” she said, “is to push for the provision of as many reproductive health services as possible within Catholic and Catholic-controlled hospitals; to urge non-Catholic hospitals not to merge with Catholic hospitals if it means denying women sterilizations, emergency contraception, condoms to prevent AIDS. We really are not terribly concerned about abortion because most hospitals, Catholic or non-Catholic, don’t do them.

“CHA [Catholic Health Association] and some of the hospitals are paranoid, unable to accept criticism, want carte blanche to do whatever they want by playing the religion card and lack of respect for the conscience of their staff and patients who want these reproductive services,” Kissling said.

“We also want government to view health care as a public trust and need, not religious ritual,” she continued, “so we do advocate that government monies should not be provided to health care institutions if they do not provide or refer for legal services needed by the community. We don’t want Catholic hospitals to close. We want them to change.”

Typical of Catholics for a Free Choice’s widely circulated publications is “Merger Trends 2001: Reproductive Health Care in Catholic Settings. ” The booklet is a listing of Catholic and Catholic-affiliated hospitals that permit tubal ligations and is a setting for the organization’s editorial message and advocacy.

Samples of the message in this case concluded “that CFFC has identified 40 hospitals from 170 mergers between 1990 and 2001 in which sterilization services may be jeopardized”; and that in the “slowing down” of “mergers between Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals, reproductive health advocates in a significant victory” were able to prevent reproductive health services “from not being wholly discontinued” in the 12 mergers that did occur.

Catholics for a Free Choice in 1999 had an income of $4.5 million, funded by about 30 foundations, including the Ford, MacArthur, and David and Lucille Packard foundations.

This article originally appeared in the 20 June 2003 edition of the National Catholic Reporter.

Catholics for Choice