Freedom from religion foundation, Inc | Subscribe
Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Barbara Alvarez: Keep Catholicism out of health care

By Barbara Alvarez

There is no room for religious doctrine in health care procedures. And yet we are seeing religion increasingly intrude into health care throughout the country.

A new Washington Post article notes that Catholic hospitals now control about one in seven hospital beds in the United States. In Wisconsin, Freedom From Religion Foundation’s home state, 43 percent of hospitals have a Catholic affiliation — the highest in the nation. These religion-based health care organizations are often located in low-income, historically marginalized communities. For example, St. Joseph Hospital in Milwaukee is situated in a community that is predominantly low-income Black and where nearly one-third of its residents live in poverty.

But this is just not a Wisconsin-based trend. In other states such as Alaska, Iowa, South Dakota and Washington, Catholic facilities make up 40 percent or more of hospital beds. In fact, a recent report by Community Catalyst notes that four of the nation’s 10 largest health systems are Catholic. The report also observes that there has been a 50 percent increase over the past two decades in terms of Catholic-controlled short-term, acute care hospitals.

This is a major health crisis, since Catholic hospitals follow directives from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It means that such hospitals prohibit treatment of procedures they deem to be “immoral.” This includes vasectomies, tubal ligation, contraception, the “morning after pill” for rape victims and abortion. As the Washington Post reports, “These policies can limit treatment options for obstetric care during miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies.” However, most Catholic hospitals do not disclose their religion-based restrictions on their website. This means people may simply be unaware that their local hospital will not provide the sexual or reproductive health care they need or want.

This is even more problematic for low-income people. For example, low-income women on Medicaid, by law, are supposed to have access to at least some providers that offer contraception. However, research has found that this isn’t typical; sometimes the only options in a patient’s network are Catholic health care facilities.

To add salt to the wound, Catholic hospitals often receive tax dollars to fund their operations. Catholics for Choice, a Catholic abortion rights group that supports affirming sexual and reproductive health care for all, has written a scathing piece about the hypocrisy of using government money for religious purposes: “By using their status as religious nonprofits to refuse care to the LGBTQIA-plus community and those in need of abortions or contraception, Catholic hospitals have succeeded in having their cake and eating it, too. These institutions rely on government funding while defying federal and state bans on discrimination.”

Even secular hospitals are at risk. Many secular hospitals are merging with Catholic hospitals for financial reasons. As a result, local hospitals and health care facilities are increasingly subject to religious indoctrination. After all, religious directives declare that “the professional-patient relationship is never separated, then, from the Catholic identity of the health care institution.”

Access to contraception and comprehensive reproductive health care is needed more than ever. As a secular country, people should be able to access comprehensive health care without fear of religious intrusion. Catholic hospitals threaten that possibility — and their monopolies in many communities and demands to merge with secular hospitals should not be tolerated.

Barbara Alvarez is a contributing writer for FFRF. Previously she had held the role as FFRF’s inaugural Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern, a program set up to memorialize FFRF’s principal founder, who was an early abortion rights activist and author of the book Abortion is a Blessing.