Catholic healthcare systems routinely restrict medical care on religious grounds. Women often tell stories of miscarriage care denied, or of nearly bleeding to death because a hospital won’t remove a dead or dying fetus. A 2008 study found that some physicians at Catholic hospitals violate the hospitals’ religious rules because of concerns about patient safety. With Catholic hospitals comprising more than 15% of all hospital beds, the regular denial of care to women experiencing miscarriages and obstetric complications raises serious concerns about patient safety and informed consent.
The California mega-merger of Dignity Health and Catholic Health Initiatives has sounded alarm bells about women’s safety. And though legislators have attempted to enact some protections for the conglomerate’s female patients, denial of appropriate medical care remains a concern.
How Catholic Hospitals Endanger Women
At first blush, it might make sense that Catholic hospitals don’t provide abortion services or offer most contraceptives. The problem is that this failure to offer the full spectrum of reproductive health care goes much further. At many hospitals, doctors are forbidden from endangering a fetus that has a heartbeat—even if the baby is dying or the mother is in danger. This can subject the woman to infections, hemorrhage, and other medical catastrophes.
Some women say that doctors did not tell them they were having a miscarriage, or did not tell them that surgery was necessary.
So what happens to women when hospitals don’t offer them appropriate care for a miscarriage—or worse, don’t tell them they’re having a miscarriage? That’s what researchers sought to learn in a newly published Obstetrics & Gynecology study. Their alarming conclusion? We have almost no data on these women.
When Catholic Hospitals Deny Care
The study analyzed 27 previous studies of religious care practices at Catholic hospital. But just one followed miscarriage management, which is the service that most often lands women in medical and psychological trouble.
The study found that many women who seek care at Catholic hospitals don’t know the hospital is Catholic. Most are unaware that Catholic hospitals may not offer certain services. In an interview with Rewire, Maryam Guiahi, one of the study’s authors, said that hospitals may deliberately mislead women about the services they don’t offer. She said one hospital directly told her that they prefer not to disclose to patients the services they don’t offer.
Guiahi also emphasized that researchers within Catholic hospitals may fear retaliation for reporting on reproductive health care, which limits data collection and published research.
The review concludes that little is known about reproductive outcomes among women seeking care at Catholic hospitals. That may be exactly what the hospitals want.
Other Data on Women Denied Abortions
Other research helps shed light on what happens to women denied abortion care. The Turnaway Study found that women denied abortions are more likely to remain or become impoverished, to suffer serious mental health issues, and to stay with abusive partners.
Anecdotal stories from numerous hospitals suggests that conscience rules, which allow hospitals to deny care based on religion, may kill patients. And now, the Trump administration wants to limit the ability of patients to push back against these rules.
Hospitals that deny care on “pro-life” grounds are not saving fetuses. They’re endangering, and potentially even killing, women. Like all pro-life maneuvers, this is about controlling women, not protecting babies.