For Highline Patients: How the Bishops Control Your Health Care

The Franciscan division of Catholic Health Initiatives recently took over Highline Medical Center in the SW Puget Sound.  What few people in Burien, West Seattle, or on Vashon Island understand is that the Highline they’ve known is now part of an ultraconservative medical system that restricts birth control and other essential health services.

Spokespeople for Catholic health care institutions often try to say that the Bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives don’t interfere with the confidentiality of the doctor/patient relationship.  Even where Catholic health systems acknowledge that they follow the Bishops’ Directives, they are cagey about how these directives are applied behind the scenes.  You will not find a policy statement on the web site of a Catholic health system that says:  “We don’t allow any of our physicians to prescribe contraceptives or to perform vasectomies or tubal ligations.”

Instead, the Catholic health systems speak in vague generalities publicly, while behind the scenes, they impose very strict and specific rules on staff.  As an example, as part of a proposed merger, Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) recently circulated a document that outlined the conditions under which a doctor could prescribe contraceptives.  The document is valuable because it gives us insight into how restrictions are imposed on doctors and staff behind closed doors.

Here is part of what the policy statement said:

“Contraceptives with secondary indications may be ordered and dispensed but are required to reflect documentation of an indication of anything but a sole and primary purpose of contraception for dispensing.”

If you’re a woman undergoing care at a Catholic Health Initiatives hospital or medical facility, in order to satisfy the Catholic bishops, your doctor must come up with a diagnosis/rationale for birth control that means something other than “doesn’t want to get pregnant.”

And whatever diagnosis is invented then becomes part of your medical history.

In another section of the same document, physicians are advised that “Vasectomy, Laparescopy Tubal Ligation/Cautery/w Fallopian Ring, Bilateral Tubal Sterilization, and Hysterescopy, Ablation Endometrial or Ablation Hydrothermal w/Hysterescopy” are all forbidden because “Direct Sterilization is not contractually approved.”

Of course, Catholic hospitals are not this direct when communicating these policies to consumers, patients, or regulators.  Instead of publishing a list of forbidden procedures, CHI says much more vaguely that “The mission of Catholic Health Initiatives is to nurture the healing ministry of the Church by bringing it new life, energy and viability in the 21st century.”

It’s up to all of us to translate that verbiage into religiously-mandated policies that forbid the use of commonly accepted and medically appropriate health care procedures and medicines.

Recently, Franciscan/CHI posted a job listing for a neonatologist – the type of doctor who does ob/gyn care for women with high risk pregnancies.  A core requirement was that the doctor should be very familiar with the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care.  Of course, those directives require that a doctor never perform a direct abortion – even in circumstances where the woman will certainly die and the fetus is not viable.

Media can access the source document containing this physician instruction by contacting the site editor.

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