Can a Catholic Hospital Refuse Medical Treatment For Religious Reasons?

What happens when a hospital refuses vital medical treatment due to the hospital’s religious beliefs?

In the United States, Catholic hospitals have come under scrutiny when reports emerged of women denied treatment due to their “ethical and religious directive.” In almost every case, it was a woman who was either pregnant and/or wished to prevent pregnancy.

How can hospitals, especially Catholic hospitals, deny necessary treatment? Regardless of religious affiliation, hospitals are there to treat and serve their community. How can the hospital be allowed to operate if they refuse necessary, life-saving treatment for those in need?

What Does the “Ethical and Religious Directive” Say?

In the United States, Catholic hospitals must follow the “ethical and religious directive” set by the Church. The Directive instructs that hospitals should treat all patients, including (but not limited to): the poor, those without insurance, single parents, the elderly, children, and “the unborn.”

The Directive states that a pregnant woman can undergo treatment or care, even at the risk of the fetus’s life, so long as their illness is “proportionately serious” in comparison to the loss of the fetus. In fact, the Directive uses the term “proportionately serious” when describing the health of a pregnant woman and an unborn fetus.

For these hospitals, the life of the unborn fetus is as important as the life of the pregnant woman in distress. In essence, the fetus is as much a patient as the mother. In fact, the directive also forbids the hospitals from sterilizing women, so they also treat the hypothetical “unborn.”

The doctors at the Catholic hospitals refused to perform an abortion, since the fetus’ heart was beating. Even after the women were bleeding heavily, in excruciating pain, developing an infection, and were told that their is no way for their child to survive.

Can a Hospital Refuse to Give Necessary Treatment?

No, a hospital cannot refuse to give a patient necessary treatment. However, the question is whether the treatment is necessary.

An abortion is not always necessary if the pregnancy would become a miscarriage. However, it is a common medical practice in the United States to perform a medically necessary abortion when a patient begins to show signs of infection and/or severe pain.

Many of the women in the report were experiencing severe pain and showing signs of infection. Instead, the Catholic hospitals turned away each patient and told them to wait in pain, discomfort, and fear until the fetus no longer had a heartbeat. In fact, to fight the pain and infection, they were given some aspirin and sent home.

It is easy to say that these women should have gone to a different hospital or facility; someplace that does not follow the Ethical and Religious Directive. But Catholic hospitals are growing in number, and in some states they account for 40% of available hospital beds. This means that for many of these women, finding a place that is not a Catholic hospital may mean hours of travel to receive treatment.

So Why is This Still Going On?

The state and federal government have not addressed the gap in treatment options that are due to religious directives. The government wants to encourage the creation and running of non-government run hospitals, but they cannot tell these hospitals how to operate.

Currently, hospitals may be required to have emergency services and not turn away impoverished patients. But women’s health and abortion issues are still heavily debated, in the government and around the dinner table. If the government cannot take a stand on abortion, then it would be hard to impose any requirement on hospitals.

But what can we do about women who are falling through the cracks of the system? These women are not seeking an abortion to end a healthy and viable fetus. They are seeking an abortion to help end the agony of a miscarriage after being told that their child will not survive.

Given the current landscape of women’s health, it seems like this issue will not be resolved any time soon. But for the health and safety of 50.8% of the United States population, we can only hope that it will stop being a question of politics and instead a question of public health and well-being.

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