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Women’s Healthcare Services Now in Jeopardy as Catholic Entity Gets Go-ahead in Maryland

January 20, 2011

Today’s decision by the Maryland Health Care Commission to allow the Catholic entity, Holy Cross Hospital, to build a new facility in Montgomery County, Md., is troubling. Despite concerns from health advocates that the new hospital would be subject to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services and therefore not provide a full range of reproductive healthcare services, the commission decided to allow the Holy Cross bid to move forward.

While the Catholic healthcare system is an important provider of services throughout the US, the recent situation in Phoenix, Ariz., shows what can happen when bishops become involved in health-related decisions. The local bishop, Thomas Olmsted, intervened when a local Catholic hospital provided a life-saving abortion to a pregnant mother of four. Despite the opinion of a number of Catholic theologians and Catholic members of the hospital staff that the abortion was vital to save the woman’s life, and therefore consistent with the directives that govern Catholic hospitals, Bishop Olmsted claimed he knew better, said the hospital was wrong to provide the abortion, and stripped the hospital of its Catholic designation.

This decision has set a precedent that may deter healthcare professionals in other Catholic hospitals from providing critical, and life-saving, procedures that women need. The real losers when this happens will be poor women who may not have any alternative source of healthcare.

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said, “If the Catholic bishops have their way, many medical treatments and preventative measures we take for granted may be under threat. Memories of the pressure that the US bishops brought to bear in last year’s healthcare reform battle are still fresh.

“The 200 US bishops who oversee dioceses do not represent the views of all Catholics, nor even a majority. In fact, a majority of Catholics do not want their bishops to be involved in healthcare decisions at all.

“While the bishops may claim to speak on behalf on Catholics nationwide, we know that the majority of American Catholics do not agree with the bishops’ rigid stance on reproductive health issues.”

The reality for women in Montgomery County who find themselves at a Catholic hospital like Holy Cross means they will have

  • No access to abortion—even in cases of rape or incest
  • No in-vitro fertilization
  • No contraception
  • No treatment for ectopic pregnancy
  • No embryonic stem-cell research
  • No respect for their advance medical directives

O’Brien continued, “The battle over the building of this hospital is not over, nor is the battle over what services should be provided at Catholic hospitals. Advocates for health reform and the poor will continue fighting to ensure that policymakers listen to those to whom they are accountable and not the US bishops.”