A pregnant woman died in Ireland because the doctors refused to help her. They refused to help her because Catholic doctrine dictated they could not help her because the fetus still had a heartbeat. This story is such a tragedy that it caught my attention. No sooner had I read that story than I saw some news on the results of a recent study of Catholic Hospitals in the U.S. There over 5,500 hospitals in the U.S. and 611 of them are Catholic Hospitals. Each and every one of the Catholic Hospitals are subject to a system of “ethical” oversight–basically the same oversight that exists in Ireland. The Catholic Church has been acquiring hospitals in the U.S. like kids acquire candy on Halloween and sometimes in rural areas or urban blight areas, they are the ONLY hospital with an ER. Add to this the fact that Hospitals have closed 25% of all ER’s in the U.S. since 1990, that means that ER’s at Catholic Hospitals will get that much more traffic.
So what does this ethical oversight mean? Catholic doctrine officially deems abortion permissible to preserve the life of the woman. However, every Catholic-owned hospital has an ethics committee made of administrators, religious personnel and some medical personnel. Unfortunately each of these committees differ in their interpretation of how much health risk constitutes a threat to a woman’s life. And if they can’t agree on what is a threat to a woman’s life, they also can’t agree on how much risk is acceptable. This inconsistency is a problem. There was one consistency that the study found…the presence of a fetal heartbeat was a barrier to providing proper miscarriage management in many, too many, cases.
This “policy” of ‘only the fetal heartbeat matters’ leads to some strange things happening: last minute transportation of unstable patients from one hospital to another, high turn over rates for doctors and nurses who can’t stand to watch patients die, doctors taking steps that would get them in some big trouble if anyone knew, lots of lawsuits, ex-communications, extremely high hospital bills, and the worst of all, the wrongful death of women. The loss of these women is sad in and of itself but there are also those that loved her, who have to live on knowing that she should still be alive and would be if they had only taken her to a different hospital. But how would they have known? Well, there’s no reason to expect the average person, who isn’t Catholic would know. I didn’t until just recently.
The Journal of the American Medical Association published an opinion piece that was very disturbing. The writer described how a patient was transferred from a religiously owned to a nonsectarian hospital for labor induction to facilitate spontaneous abortion because the religious hospital would not allow the procedure until after she became septic.
What, did I read that right? They wanted to wait until she was septic? That’s insane. No proper doctor would ever allow that to happen. To be septic is to be at death’s door. Once a person has become septic, they only have a 50/50 chance of surviving AND if they are lucky enough to survive, if they had any major problems before, those problems will only worsen, increasing their suffering, their healthcare costs, their susceptibility to other types of infections in future and an increased likelihood of death at an earlier age than would have previously been the case. Evidently, this opinion piece wasn’t the only example.
A study found many instances where Catholic administrators and lay people felt the mother’s life wasn’t in jeopardy and even though the miscarriage was inevitable they felt that the baby having a heartbeat trumped everything. Specific examples were given. Warning, if you are at all sensitive, you may cry and you may feel sick to your stomach. I certainly did. Here’s one sad and dangerous example:
She was very early, 14 weeks. She came in … and there was a hand sticking out of the cervix. Clearly the membranes had ruptured and she was trying to deliver… . There was a heart rate, and [we called] the ethics committee, and they [said], “Nope, can’t do anything.” So we had to send her to [the university hospital]… .
This next example is horrifying:
I’ll never forget this; it was awful—I had one of my partners accept this patient at 19 weeks. The pregnancy was in the vagina 1. It was over… . And so he takes this patient and transferred her to [our] tertiary medical center 2, which I was just livid about, and, you know, “we’re going to save the pregnancy.” So of course, I’m on call when she gets septic, and she’s septic to the point that I’m pushing pressors on labor and delivery trying to keep her blood pressure up, and I have her on a cooling blanket because she’s 106 degrees. And I needed to get everything out. And so I put the ultrasound machine on and there was still a heartbeat, and [the ethics committee] wouldn’t let me because there was still a heartbeat. This woman is dying before our eyes. I went in to examine her, and I was able to find the umbilical cord through the membranes and just snapped the umbilical cord and so that I could put the ultrasound—“Oh look. No heartbeat. Let’s go.” She was so sick she was in the [intensive care unit] for about 10 days and very nearly died… . She was in DIC [disseminated intravascular coagulopathy]… . Her bleeding was so bad that the sclera, the white of her eyes, were red, filled with blood… . And I said, “I just can’t do this. I can’t put myself behind this. This is not worth it to me.” That’s why I left.
Another story…one where a woman was septic, hemorrhaging similar to above–i.e., very unstable. The “committee” wouldn’t let the Doctor intervene (i.e., perform the abortion) and their recommendation was to transport her. Well, sorry but you don’t transport someone in that condition because it will most likely kill them. The hospital they were going to transfer her to refused to receive her because they KNEW that what the Catholic Hospital was doing was incredibly dangerous and not in the patient’s best interests. The rejecting hospital administrator asked the Catholic Hospital what they would do in the case of a refusal. Their response was move her out of ER (remember she’s septic and hemorrhaging , put her in a regular room, transfuse the woman, and wait until the baby dies. The thought of being that woman, makes me shudder. See I had a regular old miscarriage several years ago when I was only 7 weeks along. Even as early as that, it’s a painful, frightening, exhausting and depressing experience. I can’t imagine lying in a hospital for days, unable to move yourself to get help, trapped and feeling yourself dying while grieving the baby you know you’re losing while the staff waits for either a miracle or for one of you to die. Imagine being that woman’s husband. Most men feel horrible that they are losing the baby but sure as hell don’t want to lose their wife too. This is a real-life horror story.
The fault doesn’t just lie with these ethics committees, they have to answer to a higher authority, the Church hierarchy, that puts tremendous pressure on it’s representatives. Indeed, threats are made to the very salvation of their religious personnel and parishioners. Remember the Phoenix case where a nun on an Ethics Committee that authorized an abortion was excommunicated by her Bishop because he reviewed the case–you know with all of his non-medical training–and decided that the committee had made the wrong call. I personally thought the nun should have been given a medal for doing what she thought was right. So, now you not only have civilians on a committee making decisions that will affect your life, you really also have civilians not even on the scene (like the Bishop) sticking their noses into your life or death decisions. These ethics committees are a real death panel–not some fake thing made up on Fox News to scare voters. Essentially women are not getting the care they need because a book written 2,000+ years ago has been interpreted by a bunch of old men in a particular way that doesn’t jive with the modern practice of medicine nor the values of the majority of the U.S. population 3.
My general point is that if the hospital’s religious beliefs get in the way of properly providing medical care to people, then the Catholic Church should probably not be running hospitals. They should know better. Or our Government shouldn’t allow them to run hospitals. Or they should only be running hospitals that don’t take in pregnant women. They can specialize their services to other things that don’t create such ethical dilemmas. They can believe what they want. I truly don’t care. But they don’t have the right to force that belief on others to the point where they allow people to die in horrible, painful, sad ways. They shouldn’t have that kind of power over their own followers much less over non-Catholics. They don’t HAVE to buy up hospitals. The Vatican can invest it’s money elsewhere, make a difference elsewhere. It’s not like the world doesn’t have plenty of other unmet needs like clean drinking water, vaccinations, disaster relief, etc, etc, etc.
So my readers, you potential fathers, mothers, grandparents, just make a note to yourself. Never, ever, ever let someone take a pregnant woman to a Catholic Hospital. Control over their body and even their life could be taken away from them leaving you standing outside a room feeling your heart break while you watch your loved one slowly dying.
1. Not to belabor the point but in case you don’t understand what this means….the baby is nowhere near term, membranes have ruptured, the body is trying to miscarry and expel the infant because something is horribly wrong, the membranes have broken exposing the woman and the baby to deadly infection (that’s why they have to deliver a baby within 24 hours of a woman’s water breaking), and the baby has been naturally pushed out of the womb, past the cervix into the vagina. In this kind of situation there 0% chance the baby could live. Zero.
2. Ever been to a tertiary medical center? You probably have. It’s an office where specialists take referred patients to treat the specific ailment for which they were originally referred. They often, but not always, have some limited capability to perform operations but nothing that would suffice to handle a full-blown ER case, which was what was happening in this instance. Maybe the first doctor was just trying to get rid of the problem or maybe he/she thought that sending the patient out of the hospital would free up another doctor to do what was necessary (even though the Catholic Church owned the tertiary facility as well).
3. There have been countless surveys over the years that show time and time again that the majority of Americans believe that an abortion to save the life of the mother is not a crime (and a goodly portion of them don’t think it is a sin) and none of these people believe that a fetal heartbeat changes that calculus.