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Mixing Medicine with Religion


“Women of all faiths deserve better,” says Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group dedicated to issues of gender equality and reproductive health. The results of a study commissioned by the CFFC showed that an alarming number of hospitals owned by the Catholic Church are denying rape victims emergency contraception (EC). Not only is this an unethical way of enforcing the Church’s conservative family planning doctrine, in some states it’s against the law.

Kissling says the study, which was conducted by Ibis Reproductive Health in Massachusetts, clearly shows that the hospitals are mixing medicine and religion. “They’re pushing their own political agenda,” she says. “Over the last decade, this has become a greater problem because the bishops have used the hospitals to enforce their anti-family planning/abortion views.” The Church’s political agenda includes their conservative views on family planning. Additionally, some hard-liners within the Catholic Church believe EC is no different than abortion and that it should be prohibited in all circumstances.

The availability of EC, also known as the “morning after pill,” is hindered by the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Services” (ERDs). The ERDs include specific instructions on various medical issues that intersect with Catholic doctrine, such as abortion and euthanasia. The directive in question, ERD 36, states: “A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against potential conception from the sexual assault.” The directive also states, however, that it is not permissible to interfere with “the implantation of the fertilized ovum,” which is one of the ways EC prevents pregnancy. Moreover, the directive instructs health care providers to “offer the person psychological and spiritual support and accurate medical information.” But in too many cases, rape victims move from one terrible situation to another when they seek medical attention at a hospital that is, unbeknownst to the patient, owned by the Catholic Church.

Even though these Directives are open to interpretation, the report reveals that many hospital administrations are prescribing conservatism. “There were many aspects of the report that are troubling.” says Kissling. The report showed that over 50 percent of Catholic hospitals deny EC to rape victims. The 597 hospitals owned by the Catholic Church in the United States were each randomly contacted three times over a weekend. Although the callers never claimed to have been raped, an actual rape victim’s experience was simulated. If asked if she had been raped, the called responded, “I’d rather not talk about it.” According to the report, 23 percent of the triage nurses who answered the phone were “unhelpful, suspicious or hostile” toward callers. This, Kissling says, is why CFFC is working to eliminate the “two-tiered reproductive health care system in which women- particularly poor women- have limited access to services at Catholic hospitals.” Ibis also reported that five percent of hospitals offered EC without question and 11 percent of respondents who answered the phone were unaware of the hospital’s policy for EC.

Laws in three states- California, Washington and Illinois- currently require hospitals to provide rape victims with information about EC. The report found that, in these states, some Catholic hospitals are in violation of the law because they refused EC to rape victims. These hospitals are getting away with it for several reasons; not least of which, the CFFC believes, is the lack of community pressure on hospitals and authorities to enforce the law. Other reasons might include the state’s fears of challenging the Church hierarchy.

To combat this forceful conservative agenda, CFFC is focusing on educating the American people. Since the report came out, CFFC has distributed the alarming statistics to activist organizations and media outlets, which have not only spread the word, but are also taking a hard look at the laws of each state. “We will continue to support these efforts, “says Kissling. “We don’t believe Catholic hospitals should be above the law.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2003 edition of Nervy Girl.

Catholics for Choice