Whose “Religious Liberty” Do We Protect?

A couple of years ago, the website Raw Story had a troubling report about a conflict between religion and individual rights that is both accelerating and less visible than the high-profile conflicts (think Kentucky clerk) that make the news.

Healthcare providers and institutions are increasingly consolidating. In Washington State, for example, if all of the mergers planned when the Raw Story article was written were consummated, all hospital beds in nine counties are tied to religious institutions. That includes the University of Washington system.

Why should we care? Why is this is medically problematic?

Recently a woman was traveling across the Midwest when she developed abdominal pain. She and her husband went to the nearest hospital, where she was diagnosed with a potentially fatal ectopic pregnancy. The doctors recommended immediate surgery to remove the fallopian tube containing the misplaced embryo, a procedure that would reduce by half her future chances of conceiving a child. They failed to mention that a simple injection of Methotrexate could solve the problem, leaving her fertility intact. (In fact, at a secular hospital she found on her smart phone, it subsequently did.) Why the omission?

According to Catholic teaching, an injection that destroys an ectopic embryo counts as an  abortion; removing the part of a woman’s reproductive system containing the embryo is not.

The article has several other examples of situations, both in the U.S. and abroad, where theological commitments have trumped sound medical practice. In 2012, for example, a 16-year-old Dominican girl was denied cancer treatment for weeks while doctors debated whether chemotherapy would constitute an abortion. She eventually miscarried and later died.

An angry father shared his daughter’s experience:

A Catholic doctor at a Catholic hospital went against my daughter’s wishes and signed consent to have a hysterectomy because of severe endometriosis. One ovary had already exploded. My daughter had never intended or desired children nor was she in a suitable situation to have a child. She was single, in her late 20s. When she awoke from surgery she learned that the doctor had over-ridden her wishes and consent in an attempt to save her fertility. The operation was botched, leaving my daughter on permanent disability, in pain, with even more health problems than she’d had before.

When we go into a hospital, most of us expect our doctors and other healthcare providers to honor our expressed treatment directives. Many of us have Living Wills or other healthcare documents that reflect our own considered, deeply-held beliefs.

When a patient’s wishes are disregarded because they are inconsistent with someone else’s religion, that’s an unjustified denial of religious liberty–a denial that is particularly egregious because the  “bargaining power” of the parties is so unequal.

In a diverse society committed to civic equality, hospitals dependent upon government funds (Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) should be required to respect the decisions of adult, competent patients.

And medical practices consistent with accepted standards of care should never take a back seat to doctrine.


  1. There are so many other stories out there of women being denied their right-to-life by religious hospitals that one google search will give you massive results. People, I am sorry, but if some religious health care worker denied my right to life, I just might get out of that hospital bed and punch them in the mouth while I am walking out the door. And I’m a pacifist!

  2. All religious medical providers; including private doctors and clinics, should be required to post in conspicuous places in large letters their religious affiliation. Also, any forms to be filled out should have this information at the top of the page in large letters; staff should also be required to tell patients and family members this information prior to admission and/or treatment. If needed, the religious based facility should be required to provide transportation to the nearest (or safest) medical provider not affiliated with a religious organization. They should be required to provide life saving treatment if indicated upon arrival. They should also be libel for lawsuits should escalating health problems and/or death occur due to delay of treatment for any reason; hit them in the wallet to get their attention. Their religious affiliation is NOT more valuable or important than lives. FIRST DO NO HARM!!!!!!

  3. Posted warnings are all well and good, but in an emergency in Seattle you would have to be transported a third of the way across the state to get to a secular hospital. My mother, living in Seattle, has mentioned more than once this disturbing trend of the hospitals consolidating and gaining affiliations with religious institutions.

  4. To quote Sheldon on “The Big Bang”: Oh, what fresh h&*#l is this!”. Medical care is something that should be for the good of the patient, not for the good of the religion of the institution. I agree with all of the opinions expressed here: information beforehand and lawsuits.

  5. Removal of the nonprofit status of many of these religious medical institutions would solve this quickly. They would leave medical care quickly. They are not nonprofit and shouldn’t have that destignation.

  6. Darn… another reason to go back and re-read the Bible. I must have missed the parts that dealt with chemotherapy while pregnant and endometriosis. Is that what the parable of the mustard seed meant? I am so confused.

  7. I’m a man so I don’t have these medical problems but I’m outraged that otherwise well-meaning Christians can be so intellectually vacant. I’m especially saddened that these atrocities, to be expected in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Texas, can also occur in the State of Washington where I thought reason would prevail.

  8. Your article fits St. Vincent Hospital to a T. I have a friend (I’ll call my friend Pat) who works for St. Vincent, who one day glowingly told me about the OB/GYNs in the network who do not prescribe birth control. “Just think,” Pat said, “how much money they’re sacrificing.” Pat was very impressed how the physicians were following their (St. Vincent’s?) faith. I was so appalled I said nothing. I don’t know if Pat was correct in her/his assertion, but any OB/GYN who can’t or won’t prescribe birth control is worthless and should find another line of work.

  9. Thanks Rosemary. I was just considering switching some important medical care over to St V’s. If they are that goofy, maybe I should stay with IU. THANKS !

  10. If we still had competent investigative journalists, this would be a great feature story. I would like to know, for instance, whether religion is going to impact medical decisions before I enter a hospital. Is that too much to ask?

  11. The Dark Ages are at the door because the end times are coming. Not those end times from God but the ones from us being too stupid to carry on under the conditions that we’ve created.

    We’ve created and connected 7B people. We’ve created an international 24/7/365 gossip mill in every living room. It serves up a heaping helping of mass hysteria daily.

    We’re living in that dream in which we know an essential exam is coming and we’ve never been to class.

    In the US we’ve created a system to maintain our health based on make more money regardless of the cost to others.

    We worship reality TV and one of those docudramas turns out to be a political “debate” among Presidential contenders.

    We have an upcoming exam in Paris where the world decides to render obsolete our civilization or not and we can’t figure out the right answer.

    We want war over there and peace over here!

    We want to make better citizens of the poor by making them more poor and better citizens of the wealthy by making them more wealthy.

    We can’t decide if guns are or are not lethal weapons.

    The watchword of our times has become WTF!

    Time for the adults to end this madhouse and restore sanity before we screw up our only home beyond repair.

    And here’s the crazy part! We can do it just by voting. We don’t have to fight a Revolution or Civil War or riot in the streets. We just need the adults to go to the polls and end the insanity.

  12. Rosemary; speak out, dammit, speak out…every chance you get when fools brag about denying medical care to women. My only outlet is through the internet (primarily Sheila’s blog) and rare family get-togethers but we are all on the same side. Except for my granddaughter’s Republican fiance; the only time he spoke up was to (in writing) correct (using his version) my pronunciation of Boehner’s name. I reminded him I am deaf so have never heard the name spoken but can read and Boehner is pronounced Boner, not Bayner, according to my IPS education.

    I would dearly love to participate in a one-on-one discussion, or a group situation, of the current pseudo Christian, anti-women, anti-everything platform of the current GOP with their NO tactics in Congress leading us to another costly government shutdown. If women don’t speak up for women, we will continue moving back into the early 20th Century lifestyle of keeping women barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.

  13. Now I my OB/GYN who had been affiliated with St. Vincent did prescribe birth control. She is one of the best doctors I know and when several of my female doctors at IU and nurses were stating we had the best OB/GYN we realized we all went to the same doctor.

    I go to St. Vincent because I don’t want my employer which has been IU/Clarian to have access to my medical records and while it is ‘illegal’ for them to look at them it is not hard to find them and there was an attempt by some unscrupulous people to get access to my records to the one doctor I saw.

    It would be difficult to find a hospital that is not affiliated by a religious entity. Most hospitals in the early years were started by religious groups as a way to provide care for their parishoners. At least in Indpls there are some liberal options but I find what is going on in Washington as disturbing. There needs to be greater transparency and protection for patients.

  14. The question is……..hospitals affiliated with religions or with for profit business?

    As a man I might prefer the religious affiliation.

  15. Pete – voting would be a great answer IF: ridiculous voter ID laws didn’t hinder a goodly number of otherwise eligible voters from casting their ballots; voting times weren’t being severely curtailed; districts hadn’t been so gerrymandered as to make change impossible; our election system hadn’t become so costly that only the wealthy can afford to run; election boards could guarantee the accuracy of the voting machines (where they’re used); elected officials actually listened to and acted on the consensus of their constituencies; elected officials remembered that they were “representatives,” not in office to line their pockets or impose their religious beliefs on the people they were elected to serve. I could go on, but I’m sure you get my drift…

  16. I do get and agree with your drift. But, as I like to ask Republicans, what is your alternative?

    I believe that the issue is not has democracy failed us but have we failed democracy. We can choose otherwise.

    One of the PR successes of Republicans is to act like idiots then try to make hay with all politicians are idiots. Well, no. There are plenty of solid capable politicians with great experience and accomplishments. People know that I believe that we have been fortunate the last 7 years to have the greatest President ever and one of the greatest VPs and current Sec State. In fact it angers me to think that voters in 1951 took away our best option when they established Presidential term limits. As I said yesterday I always favor our judgement over someone else’s rules and that’s just one example.

    So, perhaps I am too optimistic but I am as confident in the smartest 51% as I am discouraged by the dumbest 49%.

    We need to seize the day.

  17. Sheila – Thanks for addressing the issue of ectopic pregnancies. I didn’t know there were such things until my next door neighbor nearly died from the ruptured fallopian tube – the ultimate result of such continuing pregnancies. She had no blood pressure by the time she got to the hospital. It’s a miracle she survived. There was no time to weigh the pros and cons of religious doctrines, get permission from religious hospital bureaucracies, nor to go to another hospital.

    While some pro-life folks support a mother’s right to life, many easily support the right to life of an embryo or fetus over the life of the mother. That’s not a decision I would want to make for anyone else.

    Were I still of child-bearing age, I would not consciously decide to go to a religious hospital that would impose their decisions and faith over my own.

  18. It’s important to realize what the founders did. Once religions feel that they can impose they believe that their higher authority requires it without limit. The only freedom is in preventing any governance that supports or denies any and all religions. No exceptions.

  19. Pete
    It’s going to be difficult to get around Susan’s points. How many successful peaceful revolutions has there been? Ghandi? Do you remember how bloody that was? Are we prepared to get in line for the next head bashing? How many were slain in French Morocco? Africa is still a blood bath in attempt to free itself from Europeans.

    What could be crueler than saturating nations of backward people with modern weapons? None of these people had the power of the vote. It ensues that the vote must therefore be diluted and prevented. That has occurred just as Susan claims. With each election it has become more of a struggle. Florida in 2008, Ohio in 2012. Calaif. in 2026? All the mechanisms are in place to control elections. Just as she claims. So how is this republic to be saved?

    Aside: There was an investigation conducted during the Vietnam War in which it was discovered that of 7500 weapons in possession of the Viet Cong, only 179 were made in the Soviet Block. We provided them with the guns and then shot them.

    And so the NRA is duping the populace today: give them Glocks and then drone them. Final disposition: He had a firearm and he pointed it. Case closed!

  20. Point:

    During the Rwandan massacres there were discovered crates and crates of bolo knives, a favorite weapon of natives. It was the weapon of choice for the mass murder of nearly a million. Clinton and the U.S. carried on business as usual. They cost .05 cents apiece and were made in China. Go figure!

  21. My point was less global and historical than yours. I was thinking about here and now under a government that is still democratic in nature. Not that we couldn’t give that away if we don’t pay attention to our problems.

  22. Moving back to the topic of religious liberty, who it is protecting or whose lives it is endangering, those of us with a uterus; obviously we must not enter the doors of any hospital whose name begins with “Saint”. That is an easy one; unless it requires a trip 1/3 of the way across a state to find such a hospital. I have a question; what is the Jewish view on the specific situations referred to by Sheila? I also wonder if the Catholic denial of necessary treatment in the cases listed involved Catholic patients or non-Catholics. Can these hospitals refuse treatment to anyone of a different religion, an Agnostic or an Atheist? Can they carry it further and refuse treatment to unmarried pregnant girls and women which is in opposition of their religious beliefs?

    If an Apostolic cultist, a duly elected official, can deny marriage licenses to those of her choosing regarding same-sex couples, can she carry this even further and deny marriage licenses to obviously pregnant women…even those choosing to marry a person of the opposite sex? This would obviously be against her current religious beliefs in the case of Kim Davis. All marriages require a state license to be legally recognized and recorded. Religion is not part of the qualification requirements to obtain a marriage license so how is Kim Davis now the hillbilly heroine of homophobes?

    “When a patient’s wishes are disregarded because they are inconsistent with someone else’s religion, that’s an unjustified denial of religious liberty–a denial that is particularly egregious because the “bargaining power” of the parties is so unequal.”

    If I remember correctly, religion is – or was – a question on hospital admission forms in case of imminent death and the patient requests the presence of someone from their chosen religion. Would this give the religious representative the right to make medical decisions? I ask these questions in all seriousness; this blog opened pathways to other questions for me. Is any of this addressed in Pence’s RFRA or his “fixed” version?

  23. Both Pete and Earl have extremely valid observations.

    Pete sees America one way and Earl sees it another. Both perspectives are different. However, both perspectives are equally valid and BENEFICIAL.

    The oligarchy in America controls thru multi-level systems all working in tandem. Pete is observing the systems at the historical and surface levels, whereas Earl is observing them at the deeper sub-surface levels.

    In order to save America’s democracy, all perspectives must be taken into account. This hasn’t been done in the past. The big question is: Do we have the courage to see the big picture? Based on our past performance, it is very difficult to be optimistic.

  24. JoAnn: If a couple of obviously different races (white/black) though heterosexual applied to Kim Davis for a marriage license what would she do? How would her cult inform her?

  25. You’re right, Marv.

    there are certain factors of which we may be reasonably certain:

    A collapse will be sparked by things we know not of. A racial incident. Natural disaster, manmade or not. Gradual collapse of the economy to critical mass. Who knows? What we do know is that a catalyst will occur at some time and place which is beyond our knowledge or control.

    Upon this event, no matter what it is, the powers will immediately convert into a racial conflict.
    Yet, there is an element of nature not considered by the oligarchy. Those of us existing in the real world can readily see it. The races of America are blending at a rate which outdistances their rhetoric. It is entirely possible that their old strategy will have had its run.

    When revolution comes, what side will Pedro join? Hassad? Mariah Carey? Stephen Curry?

    What plan have we seen successful in recent history? Gallipoli? Hitler’s Eastern offensive? Japan’s Dec 7th strategy? French/American near east policies? Wolfowitz’s Iraq strategy? Pointe du Hoc military intelligence? Janet Reno’s Waco strategy?

    How long will it take for the room temperature IQ intellects to understand that they can’t control the gennie? What do you hear from them today? Let’s’ bomb them back into the stone age. ( Curtis LeMay, my old boss.) These fools still can’t see that when you take them there, you have to go with them. They are wiling, just like Goebbels, to die to save ourselves.

  26. “And medical practices consistent with accepted standards of care should never take a back seat to doctrine.”

    If you want to see medical care in action as it is meant to be, go the rileyinternationalheartmissions@wordpress.com to understand the healing hearts of nurses and doctors who took their Hippocratic oath seriously. Look for the name Ashley Woolen; that is my granddaughter and this is her second year to make the trip with the few chosen Riley pediatric surgery staff to go to Uganda to perform pediatric heart surgeries and assist the Ugandan doctors and nurses as they learn to better serve their patients. Ashley is only 27 years old; she is my hero, as are the others on this team who work miracles.

    They do this for the love of healing; they do not pick and choose patients due to the patient’s religious beliefs or political affiliation, they serve the most severe cases first but turn no one away. Last year was a grueling 65 hour work week; it will be the same this year and they will leave for home wanting…needing to do more.

    People; these are true Registered Nurses and qualified doctors doing what they were meant to do with their lives, saving the lives of children, all children they can possibly reach.

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