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.