Catholic health group calls N.Y. Times editorial wrong and ‘irresponsible’


WASHINGTON— The Catholic Health Association said a Dec. 8 New York Times editorial “was misleading and in error” when it claimed that mergers between secular hospitals and Catholic hospitals and the U.S. bishops’ ethical and religious directives that guide Catholic health care restrict quality medical care for women and children.

“It is especially regrettable that such a respected publication would rush to judgment without validating the facts,” the Catholic Health Association said in a Dec. 9 statement issued by the St. Louis-based organization’s Washington office.

“Catholic hospitals in the United States have a stellar history of caring for mothers and infants,” it said. “Hundreds of thousands of patients have received extraordinary care, both in the joy of welcoming an infant or in the pain of losing one. In many communities in our country, the Catholic hospital’s maternity service is the designated center for high-risk pregnancies.”

The New York Times editorial was prompted by a lawsuit filed Nov. 29 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan/Southern Division by the American Civil Liberties Union and its Michigan affiliate claiming that because of the directives, Tamesha Means of Muskegon, Mich., received negligent care at a Michigan Catholic hospital when her pregnancy was in crisis at 18 weeks, leading to the loss of her baby.

The suit claims the directives kept the doctors from giving Means complete information about her condition, treatment options and adequate care, a situation that led her, it says, to suffer emotional and painful trauma that resulted in a premature birth, and the death of the baby shortly thereafter.

“Beyond new state efforts to restrict women’s access to proper reproductive health care, another, if quieter, threat is posed by mergers between secular hospitals and Catholic hospitals operating under religious directives from the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops,” the editorial said. “These directives, which oppose abortions, inevitably collide with a hospital’s duty to provide care to pregnant women in medical distress.”

The suit names as defendants the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Mercy Health Muskegon, as it is now called, which is the hospital where Means sought care; and three former or current chairs of the board of the health care network that includes the hospital.

The CHA statement said the editorial was “inaccurate and irresponsible to assert that these wonderful community services are unsafe for mothers in an obstetrical emergency, simply because a Catholic hospital adheres to the ethical and religious directives.”

“There is nothing in the ethical and religious directives that prevents the provision of quality clinical care for mothers and infants in obstetrical emergencies,” it said.

The “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care” guide Catholic health care facilities in addressing a wide range of ethical questions, such as abortion, euthanasia, care for the poor, medical research, treatment of rape victims and other issues. They are now in their fifth edition, approved by the U.S. bishops in 2009. The 43-page document includes 72 directives.

The ACLU lawsuit cites only one directive, No. 45, which says in part: “Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted.”

Directive No. 27 requires informed consent. Directive No. 47 states: “Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.”

Beyond the directives, several independent organizations have oversight responsibility for all hospitals, including Catholic hospitals, the CHA said.

“Nationally, for most hospitals it is the Joint Commission (JCAHO) and, in each state, there is a licensing agency. Both organizations have robust standards and inspections,” it said. “They would not accredit or license a hospital that is unsafe for mothers or infants under any circumstance. Add to that the commitment of health professionals caring for these mothers.”

In a Dec. 6 statement, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., USCCB president, said that “the death of any unborn child is tragic, and we feel deeply for any mother who suffers such pain and loss,” but he called the ACLU lawsuit “misguided.”

He said it was “baseless” for the ACLU to claim the directives encourage or require “substandard treatment of pregnant women” because they do “not approve the direct killing of their unborn children.”

The archbishop added that the USCCB will continue to defend the principles of Catholic teaching, including as outlined in the ethical directives, “in season and out, and we will defend ourselves against this misguided lawsuit.”