Catholic Health Care’s Demise — Is It Imminent?

There was a time when institutions bearing a Catholic identity, such as hospitals and clinics, would never have agreed to even the slightest hint of deviating from the Catholic Church’s teachings. That was, I am sad to say, a very long time ago.

Today, there appears to be a slow deterioration in the Catholic identity of Catholic health-care institutions. I started to become aware of this over 10 years ago, when the Peoria Protocol first came to my attention. For those unfamiliar with it, the Peoria Protocol, first developed in 1995, was put in place at Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Illinois. The Protocol defines permissible approaches to medical care following a sexual assault. Following are two of its four possible courses of action:

* The woman is determined to be past the early post-ovulatory phase of her cycle if the LH urine test is negative and her progesterone level is greater than or equal to 6 ng/mL. In this situation, the timing of the sexual assault could not have coincided with the presence of an ovum. Hence, it is morally permissible to administer an emergency contraceptive for the victim’s psychological benefit.

* Finally, the woman is determined to be in the late post-ovulatory phase if the LH urine test is negative, her progesterone level is less than 6 ng/mL, and she anticipates menstruation in less than seven days. Here, too, it is morally permissible to administer a contraceptive medication.

These two statements, while approved by many Catholic medical ethicists, represent a fundamental moral problem. If the Catholic Church does not condone the use of contraception as medical treatment in any case other than a situation involving a serious medical condition and in which the female abstains from sexual relations during such treatment, how can it be permissible to administer a powerful chemical compound that is known to abort, when there is no serious medical condition and alternative therapies exist? Neither of the above scenarios described in the Peoria Protocol provide a 100-percent guarantee that a child has not been conceived. Moreover, these statements are nuanced and do not provide adequate safeguards to protect the child, should his conception have occurred as a result of the rape.

One has to wonder why a Catholic hospital would even consider this treatment option. Saint Francis Medical Center is also involved in dispensing oral contraceptives. The news media reports that its involvement in the distribution of birth control pills is the direct result of a “middle ground” decision:

[W]hen OSF Saint Francis began hiring primary care physicians in the 1990s as part of OSF Medical Group, many of the physicians wanted to prescribe oral contraceptives. Much anguished discussion ensued, said Joseph Piccione, corporate ethicist for OSF Healthcare System.

Yet a middle ground was found. No contraception of any kind would be distributed within the four walls of the hospital itself, Piccione said.

Regardless of walls, there is no Catholic doctrine that would sanction an arm’s-length agreement that the birth control pill can be dispensed under the aegis of the Church.

Then there’s the California case involving known abortionists serving as staff physicians for Catholic hospitals. When Wynette Sills first brought this to our attention earlier this year, we investigated, only to find—to our dismay—that, in fact, the situation is as she originally described it. As Bud Reeves reports,

We want our readers to know that we are continuing with our investigation as well as with our direct action activities regarding Mercy San Juan Hospital (MSJH) and Catholic Healthcare West’s (CHW) practice of allowing identified abortion doctors to practice at MSJH and even be promoted on their webpage. CHW originally excused their promotion and use of three identified abortion doctors as a matter of an insurance requirement. Following my (Bud) efforts to get clarification from Mr. Gardner, last week he sent me a one sentence email which now claims that federal law requires CHW hospitals to allow the abortion doctors to practice in their hospitals. I wrote back to Mr. Gardner and asking him for a meeting or at least giving us the citations for the laws he refers to. So far nothing but silence from Mr. Gardner. Keep this in prayer.

It is probably no accident that about a year ago, Catholic Healthcare West entered into an alliance with human cloning practitioner Advanced Cell Technology, Inc.  While it is reported that Catholic Healthcare West will be conducting clinical trials of adult stem cell treatment for heart disease, this alliance raises serious ethical questions, due to the fact that “ACT has previously promoted research that contradicts Catholic principles regarding respect for the rights of the human embryo.”

The problematic nature of such agreements, arrangements and alliances is not by any means limited to Illinois and California. It is a nationwide epidemic, rooted in the age-old dilemma of choosing between God and money. This becomes very clear when revisiting the complexities of the Boston archdiocese’s Caritas Christi mess. You may recall that American Life League was quick to commend Cardinal Sean O’Malley when the archdiocese made this announcement on June 26:

Caritas Christi Health Care, the financially challenged Catholic hospital system founded by the Archdiocese of Boston, is abruptly ending its joint venture with a Missouri-based health insurer at the insistence of Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, who has decided that the relationship represented too much of an entanglement between Catholic hospitals and abortion providers.

But, within days, we received a telephone call informing us that the agreement had actually not been cancelled. Carol McKinley reported this on her blog, which has thus far not been refuted: “Nobody (including other bishops and cardinals) is able to get details out of the cardinal about what it is he has approved. I think our Catholic pro-life force deserves to know what the actual arrangement is.”

But we do have an inkling when we consider the statement Cardinal O’Malley made, as quoted in the Boston Globe: “By withdrawing from the joint venture and serving the poor as a provider… upholding Catholic moral teaching at all times, they are able to carry forward the critical mission of Catholic health care.’’ The newspaper’s analysis: “Because Caritas will no longer be a joint owner of the insurance venture, the archdiocese is hoping that there will no longer be any question that Caritas will not financially profit from abortions, sterilizations, or other services provided by non-Catholic hospitals.”

A Caritas spokeswoman told the Globe, “This is the right way to move the distraction of the debate of ownership and allow us to be a provider.’’ Here is noted Catholic commentator Phil Lawler’s response: “A debate over involvement in killing unborn babies is a ‘distraction’ from the business of saving lives. A debate over mutilating people to make them infertile is a ‘distraction’ from the distinctive mission of Catholic health care.”

So we are left to wonder if all this means is that Caritas Christi is no longer a an official business partner of abortion providers, but still connected with them in some way. Does it mean that Catholic hospitals will continue to refer for abortion, use the morning-after pill to treat rape victims and so forth? Nobody knows!

As I write this, similar problems are developing in New Hampshire, where the pressure is on Catholic hospitals to bend to the will of the state. New Hampshire Right to Life has prepared a set of three videos dealing with the challenges they face at this time. As was the case in Massachusetts, the cause of concern is a merger.

Wisconsin’s Catholic hospitals are also under the gun. Just last year, they were forced to dispense emergency contraception and did not sue, or in any other way, act to protect their Catholic identity. So what will happen now?

Well, the answer, which is frightening to say the least, may be contained in a short commentary written by Catholic Health Association’s president and CEO, Sister Carol Keehan, DC, who attended the March 5 Obama White House Health Reform Summit. She tells us,

President Obama also was clear that we will have to spend more money in the immediate future to build the infrastructure to lower health care costs in order to achieve the kind of savings and affordability in the future. He pointed out that this is politically one of the hardest kinds of decisions to make.

It occurs to me that the various pressure tactics already being used by state governments to pressure Catholic hospitals into doing the unthinkable are but one way to tighten the noose as “Obama-care” becomes a reality, if, in fact, it does. What also occurs to me is that our bishops must speak with a unified voice, without any dissent and without any bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. They must set forth authentically Catholic medical ethics as the only medical ethics that will be followed in a Catholic setting—with or without mergers, alliances or “common-ground” shenanigans. Until that happens, Catholic health care, as we once knew it, will continue to deteriorate and, at some point, will crumble.

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  • dennisofraleigh

    Catholic medicine is following the same tragic path that Catholic academia set out on half a century ago: i.e., eliminating the virtuous distinctions that set Catholic universities (and now hospitals) apart from their non-Catholic counterparts.
    Who sits on the Catholic hospital boards these days as opposed to, say, the late 1940′s? How many Catholic hospitals are now accepting federal and other funding that makes them beholden to policies they might not otherwise institute in their “Catholic” medical practice?
    It was probably with the best of intentions that Catholic hospital officials entered into “agreements, arrangements and alliances” with outside secular organizations, but over the years one compromise after another has been made in order to remain in the good graces of those same outside entitities with whom the agreements were made.
    Perhaps it is time (overdue?) for Catholic leaders in the field of medicine to revisit the whole notion of what it means to be a “Catholic hospital” based not on some outsiders notion of what it means to operate a good hospital, but on
    “authentically Catholic medical ethics.” Based on what Judie has written, perhaps even an “extreme makeover” is in order for Catholic hospitals considering how low they have now set their standards.

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