In October, 2012, a 31-year-old mother in Ireland, Savita Halappanavar, entered a Catholic hospital and was told she was having a miscarriage. As a trained medical professional, Halappanavar understood the risks of infection once a miscarriage starts, and she asked that her pregnancy be terminated. Staff refused, citing Irish law, which says that abortion is never legal. Days later, after she and then her husband continued to beg for an abortion under the gaze of intense media scrutiny, Halappanavar died. Her death in Ireland, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, was later judged in a 257-page report to be the result of a “medical misadventure.”
According to the BBC, the report also said “there was a failure to recognize she was developing an infection and to act on her deteriorating condition.” Which of course wasn’t true, because Halappanavar herself knew she was developing an infection and she knew she would die if her pregnancy didn’t end.
The outcry in Ireland after Halappanavar’s death was so intense that the country later changed the law, allowing abortions to be done when a woman’s life is in danger. The Catholic bishops condemned the change, calling it “a dramatically and morally unacceptable change to Irish law.” In the eyes of the Catholic bishops, it was also a “denial of (their) religious freedom.”
Here in the U.S., the Catholic bishops and CEOs of Catholic hospitals are girding for the fight to express their religious freedom by denying treatment to save women’s lives. In their eyes, fidelity to their religion requires that Catholic institutions deny a woman an abortion even if, like Savita Halappanavar, she begs for one to save her life.
In fact, when asked specifically about the new Irish law, a Catholic hospital system CEO here in the U.S. said, “The bottom line is we have the Ethical and Religious Directives…that we’re bound by….We’re coming into an era where we will have legal battles and we’ll have to come together to fight – particularly if it’s a nonnegotiable and abortion being one….this is where the Catholic hospitals and the Conference of Catholic bishops can come together and have a united front against.”
Seattle’s Archbishop J. Peter Sartain is an outspoken leader on the “religious liberty” rights of the Catholic Church and Catholic institutions. Sartain serves on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty and is one of the architects of the policy of invoking religious liberty claims in order to infringe on the rights of others. While fighting against same-sex marriage, for example, Sartain signed on to a letter that said “The legal separation of marriage from procreation would have a chilling effect on religious liberty and the right of conscience.”
Sartain has also argued that his religious liberty rights are infringed when women who work for Catholic institutions are provided insurance coverage for birth control. And he’s been a constant, outspoken opponent of abortion, access to Death with Dignity, and research treatments derived from embryonic stem cells, saying “It has been the constant teaching of the Church that life begins at conception….We vehemently oppose abortion, embryonic stem cell research and euthanasia because they snuff out the gift of life.”
In Sartain’s worldview, his religious liberty is infringed when Catholic organizations cannot get public funding while denying same-sex couples the right to adopt or when Catholic organizations can’t get funding in order to deny medically appropriate care, including contraceptives and access to safe, legal abortion, to sex trafficking victims.
Some physicians in Catholic health systems are clearly resisting. Recently, here in Washington, a woman with a life-threatening pregnancy emergency was turned away from a Catholic facility. The physicians, perhaps not wanting to oversee a case that might pit a woman’s life against Archbishop Sartain’s self-declared religious freedom rights, sent her away without telling her why.
Sartain and the other bishops on the Religious Liberty committee also say that a major threat to religious liberty is that the government might compel religious institutions to “retain as leaders, employees, or members those who obtain legalized same-sex marriage.” Perhaps that’s why he acted so quickly to enforce the departure of an employee at Eastside Catholic whose same-sex marriage was recently revealed.
Here in Washington State, some people think it’s alarmist to actually pay attention to the words and actions of the person who oversees Catholic health care in the Western third of the state and who ultimately decides whether women who need an abortion must die or whether same-sex married employees must be fired.
After reviewing the record, there is no doubt: Sartain’s commitment to his own religious liberty is strong and it requires that women who need a direct abortion in order to live must die, and health care employees in same-sex marriages who work for Catholic institutions must be fired.