Are Catholic Hospitals Safe for Pregnant Women?

The news of the excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride, the nun at a St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix who approved an abortion that was necessary to save the life of a woman, has shocked and angered both the devout and the non-religious alike. 

Catholics for Choice condemned the action via press release, stating:

“[I]t is clear that the Vatican’s hard line on abortion led to this terrible situation. Sadly, we see situations like this time after time, both here in the US and abroad. The Vatican’s outright ban on all abortions is insensitive and reflects an unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of women’s lives, including the difficult decisions that often have to be made during a pregnancy.

Reasonable Catholics the world over acknowledge that access to abortion is sometimes necessary, and our polling and that of other organizations shows that a large majority of Catholics reject the Vatican’s outright ban on all abortions.”

Reasonable Catholics may very well reject the outright ban on abortion, but it seems that these are not the Catholics who often get to make the final decision on medical procedures that occur within hospital walls.  Because, unfortunately, situations like the one in the Arizona hospital occur with great frequency, and women’s lives and medical requests are often ignored in the name of religious doctrine.

Earlier this month the Journal of General Internal Medicine released a study showing how rampant the disagreement is between Catholic hospitals and the doctors who provide care for patients.  From the American Medical News Association:

Most of the physicians reporting conflicts worked in Catholic hospitals, which account for 12.5% of all U.S. community-based hospitals and 15.5% of hospital admissions, according to the Catholic Health Assn. of the United States.

Catholic hospitals are required to follow the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ religious directives on medical care that bar contraception, abortion and sterilization and, in many instances, rule out ending artificial hydration and nutrition.

When conflicts arise, 86% of surveyed physicians said they would encourage patients to seek the recommended care at another hospital. Ten percent said they would offer an alternative treatment that could be delivered at the religious hospital, and 4% endorsed violating the hospital’s policy to provide the care.

The author of the study, Dr. Debra Stulberg, has had her own issues with medical directives being overturned by Catholic hospital administrators, and in one case a woman would have been forced to put her life in danger just to avoid abortion.

Family physician Debra Stulberg, M.D., was completing her residency in 2004 when West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, Illinois, was acquired by the large Catholic system Resurrection Health Care. “They assured us that patient care would be unaffected,” Dr. Stulberg says. “But then I got to see the reality.” The doctor was struck by the hoops women had to jump through to get basic care. “One of my patients was a mother of four who had wanted a tubal ligation at delivery but was turned down,” she says. “When I saw her not long afterward, she was pregnant with unwanted twins.”

And in emergency scenarios, Dr. Stulberg says, the newly merged hospital did not offer standard-of-care treatments. In one case that made the local paper, a patient came in with an ectopic pregnancy: an embryo had implanted in her fallopian tube. Such an embryo has zero chance of survival and is a serious threat to the mother, as its growth can rupture the tube. The more invasive way to treat an ectopic is to surgically remove the tube. An alternative, generally less risky way is to administer methotrexate, a drug also used for cancer. It dissolves the pregnancy but spares the tube, preserving the women’s fertility. “The doctor thought the noninvasive treatment was best,” Dr. Stulberg recounts. But Catholic directives specify that even in an ectopic pregnancy, doctors cannot perform “a direct abortion”—which, the on-call ob/gyn reasoned, would nix the drug option. (Surgery, on the other hand, could be considered a lifesaving measure that indirectly kills the embryo, and may be permitted.) The doctor didn’t wait to take it up with the hospital’s ethical committee; she told the patient to check out and head to another ER.

Waiting for the ethical committee to approve would not only delay the patient’s care and put her life in danger, it still couldn’t guarantee a positive outcome for the patient.  After all, it was Sister Margaret McBride’s ruling on the committee in favor of saving the mother’s life in Arizona that got her excommunicated.  How many members of the church are willing to risk what they believe to be their immortal souls to defy the church, even if it means saving a woman’s life?

And truly, many of these are cases of saving a woman’s life.  Women who are already in danger due to their pre-existing conditions are being told that not only are they so expendable, and that these hospitals will not perform the abortions that would save their lives, but that they should further risk their lives by seeking out some other place that might provide them care, such as Michelle Lee, who had to travel to a different state to have a necessary procedure performed.

In 1998, the Louisiana State University Medical Center in Shreveport refused to provide an abortion for Michelle Lee, a woman with cardiomyopathy who was on the waiting list for a heart transplant, despite her cardiologist’s warning that the pregnancy might kill her. Hospital policy dictated that to qualify for an abortion, a woman’s risk of dying had to be greater than 50 percent if her pregnancy was carried to term; a committee of physicians ruled that Lee did not meet this criterion. Since her cardiomyopathy made an outpatient abortion too dangerous, she traveled 100 miles to Texas by ambulance to have her pregnancy terminated.

The woman’s risk of dying has to be greater than 50 percent.  And even then, who gets to determine if her risk is above 50 percent, if the doctors are being overruled by the Catholic hospital administrators?  As Dr. Debra Stulberg’s attending put it to her, “So, it looks like we’re going to be working for the Pope.”

Do you want the Pope deciding on your medical care?

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  • jgbeam

    …and never is.



    Abortion is not healthcare.


    Jim Grant, Pro-lifer

  • robin-marty

    a woman’s risk does not increase until the 3rd trimester because that is WHEN SHE GIVES BIRTH.  Yes, until then if she doesn’t move or strain herself she is a likely decent incubator of that child, but the second that she either begins labor or has surgery to remove the baby, her health is then at huge risk.


    The medical people who were involved in her case said it was necessary.  Some other doctor who said it wasn’t his patient and so he really can’t speak to that direct situation, but in his opinion it is NEVER necessary said it wasn’t.  Gee, I wonder who is more likely to be right…



  • robin-marty

    “Byrne emphasized that the unborn child at 11 weeks gestation would have a negligible impact on the woman’s cardiovascular system.”


    Speaking as a woman who is currently almost 10 weeks pregnant, that’s a total lie.  By 8 weeks your curculatating almost twice as much blood as you were before pregnancy.  As any first and second trimester woman if she is out of breath more easily than she was a few months ago, and she’ll tell you she is.

  • prochoiceferret

    Abortion was not necessary…and never is.

    Well, yeah, if you don’t consider the pregnant woman remaining alive to be necessary.


    Abortion is not healthcare.


    Jim Grant, Non-doctor

  • thankyoudrtiller

    …and allowed me to safely carry three other pregnancies to term.


    I was diagnozed with severe pre-eclampsia in the 22nd week.  By the 25th week, it was clear we had no other choice but to terminate the pregnancy.  My life was in danger: my blood pressure was off the charts, and my heart was failing. 


    The abortion was a difficult decision, but I know we made the right one.  It allowed me to live long enough to become “Mom” to three other wonderful children.  It was the most “pro life” decision we could have made.  What do you think, Jim, should I have sacrificed my own life to the slight possibility that my fetus would have made it out alive? 

  • amie-newman

    and had a health scare, did you ever consider terminating the pregnancy? Or did you feel certain that, with other children at home, no matter whether you and your fetus would possibly die, you’d undoubtedly continue the pregnancy?

    Oh, wait. Sorry. You’ve never been pregnant, Never been faced with a medical decision that, sadly, must force a choice between your own life or the life of the fetus you’re nurturing, growing inside you. You’ve never been faced with needing to choose whether you’ll give the living, breathing post-born children at home a mother for years to come or “sacrifice” your life, your partner’s life, your children’s lives so that a religious figure can feel that he or she is abiding by doctrine.

    And, yet you believe that it is up to *you* whether children retain their mothers, physicians practice medicine in the best way they know how, whether mothers’ lives should be sacrificed or not. Not women, not mothers, not families, not physicians – you?! Your opinion is just that – an opinion. It is not to be made into law, barring women, families and physicians from making the difficult, loving decisions that must be made in some situations. Forcing families to live and die by your committment to an incredibly ill-informed opinion is utterly wrong.

  • julie-watkins

    in Catholic-Owned Hospitals” – Lori R. Freedman & Jody Steinauer, October 2008, Vol 98, No. 10 | American Journal of Public Health. I forget who pointed me to that article, thanks.

    The stories are rather scary. The incidents would have happened between 1996 and 2001, maybe later. I had thought that Catholic ethics would be to “wait until she starts hemorrhaging” … but from the examples given in the above article the membrane could be broke, the doomed fetus already in the vagina, the woman septic … and ethics committees in some hospitals would not allow intervention if there was a fetal heartbeat, even if the pregnancy was doomed. This put the women at great risk, and the doctors described various ways dealt with the ethics committee. (One was able to “accidently” snap the umbilical so the heartbeat stopped; another wouldn’t do a sonogram because there was enough other evidence, others transferred patients while unstable or risked the woman’s health more than they wanted and then quit.) The original research wasn’t specifically targeting Catholic-Owned hospitals, but the authors were concerned about the public health issues raised in a subset of a larger study.

  • crowepps

    Unfortunately, only an abstract of the study is available without ‘pay to view’.  I did find a broader summary of services that aren’t available in the letter regarding Carondelet Health Network available at this link:


  • julie-watkins

    My university must have bought access to that journal for our network. It’s worth looking up, anyone who’s library has access.

    Thanks for that link, I will read it.


  • gordon

    Jim Grant, you are only pro-life if you define a pregnant woman’s life as nonexistent.  In fact, no point in mincing words here, your post reveals you as a viscious and life-hating bigot.

  • chen

    Then how come priests and bishops abusing and molesting children do NOT get excommunicated but a nun advocating an abortion to save women’s lives does??? Is patriarchal favoritism at work here again???

  • colleen

    Is paedophilia a lesser sin?

    Pedophilia is a perk of employment.

  • daveb

    When will people stop listening to the mysogonistic, self-important fraternity that is the Catholic Church? It is a fraternity of evil men who, largely, only give a crap about their own power and wealth.

    Recently, the aptly named, Father Cutie had to leave the “Church” for breaking vows of celebacy. Other priests have been threatened with immediate excommunication if they ordain women.

    BUT, if you break your vow of celebacy by raping a child you get a pass. You get sent to another city or country where you can abuse again. How is having carnal knowledge of a child less offensive than having carnal knowledge of another adult?

    I don’t quite understand.

  • faultroy

    “… Forcing families to live and die by your committment to an incredibly ill-informed opinion is utterly wrong…”

    Yeah, about as wrong as you sitting on your butt eating BonBons while they’re  MEN out there that are and have died in wars that you never had to fight–Oh wait!!!! You’re a WOMAN…you don’t have to defend this country–only eat the fruits and take advantage of all the benefits that dead men bequeathed you!!!!

      And that is why YOUR opnion to your comittment to an incredibly ill-informed opinion is utterly wrong…”   Funny  LOL!!!!!

  • colleen

    I can see why you have to resort to rape.

    Equating reproduction with war is not an effective argument for a couple of reasons. We haven’t had a draft for a long time and the REASON we don’t have a draft is because a lot of brave women volunteered to defend their country. Had they not volunteered to defend their country (or, alternatively,. invade and occupy countries that pose no threat at all) we would have to have reinstituted a draft and your punk ass would be in Afghanistan right now.

  • crowepps

    Not because they HAD to, but because they VOLUNTEERED.


    At the point where they reinstitute the draft and men are again forced to serve, you might have a point. Right now, most men are sitting…eating bons-bons while there are both men AND women defending the country.

    On Dec. 11, 1775, Jemima Warner was killed by an enemy bullet during the siege of Quebec.


    World War I Army nurse Edith Ayres was killed on May 20, 1917.


    How many women have died in past wars?


    Although research is still ongoing, we believe that at least 359 servicewomen died during World War I, the vast majority from the influenza epidemic that swept around the world, killing millions of people.


    Approximately 543 military women died in the line of duty during World War II, including 16 from enemy fire, and others from a variety of causes including aircraft and vehicle accidents and illness.


    Seventeen military nurses died during the Korean War, most from aircraft crashes.


    Eight military women died while serving in Vietnam, one from enemy fire, and 16 died during Operation Desert Storm.


    Some historical records verify the fact that over sixty women were either wounded or killed at various battles during the Civil War.


  • teb-abhour

    The only remaining safe place for medical treatments in America is in Catholic hospitals. Only there can you be certain that they won’t kill your baby. Only there can you be sure you won’t have a doctor euthanize you. Only there is your entire self including your soul cared for.


    All other American medical businesses operate free of such concerns as the welfare of the patient. Money is their god.

  • prochoiceferret

    The only remaining safe place for medical treatments in America is in Catholic hospitals.

    Great. If you’re a pregnant woman, and you have pregnancy complications, you can go get that “safe” medical treatment at your nearest Catholic hospital.

    Only there is your entire self including your soul cared for.

    Apparently, only Catholics know how to deal with that soul-thingamajig.

    All other American medical businesses operate free of such concerns as the welfare of the patient. Money is their god.

    Yes, because everyone is either a kind, caring, God-fearing Catholic, or a soulless, atheist, money-grubbing bottom-feeder.

  • crowepps

    Only in a Catholic hospital is a woman prevented from getting her tubes tied so her chronic health complaint won’t combine with pregnancy and kill her, only in a Catholic hospital is a pregnant woman guaranteed the ‘right’ to die along with her fetus, only in a Catholic hospital is your Living Will or Medical Directive ignored so that your bank account is totally empty and your family bankrupt when you finally manage to die.


    Judging by their attitude toward women with serious complications of miscarriage, Catholic hospitals may believe they are great at caring about ‘souls’ but they do a LOUSY job of caring for bodies.

  • orangina

    Sometimes yes it is. Until you become a woman don’t preach to me about how abortion isn’t healthcare. So in your world it’s better for women to die when they are pregnant. You do know that when the mother dies the unborn child dies also.

  • denver

    That is a nonsensical example because women don’t dictate that men have to go off and fight wars… yet you want to dictate what women can and cannot do.  Secondly we have a volunteer army… and women volunteer too.  Nor do I know any woman that sits on her butt eating bonbons all day while “her man” does all the work.  Don’t women make up half the workforce?  And what about raising all those kids you deem it necessary that we have?  Is that sitting on your butt eating bonbons?

  • crowepps

    During World War II, a war during which 16,000,000 (mostly) men and some women were in the military, the population of the United States was 133 million, meaning that out of 66.5 million men, less than 25% actually served in the military.


    It’s equivalent to the ‘I do my share’ defense around the house – ‘well, the wife may work full time, do all the cleaning, cooking, laundry, child care and errands, but the man cuts the grass in the summer, keeps the cars maintained and occasionally fixes something’.

  • mariekw

    Clearly the pope is the person most likely to go to hell, not the nun who approved the lifesaving medical procedure.


    The pope, or whichever of his misognynist lackeys approved the excommunication of the nun who was simply performing her moral, humanitarian, and medical duty, should be ashamed of himself. If his mother is still around I encourage her to go spank the devils out of him. How can anyone believe that it is morally preferable to allow the mother AND fetus to die instead of saving the mother’s life unless their brain has become possessed by the demons of stupidity.


    I had been getting some of my medical care at a Catholic-administrated facility. After this fiasco, no more! I have other options. But what about the people who because of their financial situation or restrictions on their health insurance have no other option? How many of them will die because the pope prohibits medical personnel from doing what is medically necessary to save lives?  No more public funding should ever go to facilities that impose religious limitations on the quality of care.

  • jacqueline-s-homan

    Yeah, about as wrong as you sitting on your butt eating BonBons while they’re  MEN out there that are and have died in wars that you never had to fight–Oh wait!!!! You’re a WOMAN…you don’t have to defend this country–only eat the fruits and take advantage of all the benefits that dead men bequeathed you!!!!


    MEN don’t get forcibly conscripted into the military to fight and risk dying in wars without any compensation; but misogynist bigots like you are doing your best to forcibly conscript WOMEN into childbirth chattel slavery at risk to OUR health and lives, without compensation for any disabling injuries or for the physical incapacitation and economic loss imposed on us by pregnancy and birth, and without a chance to preserve OUR health and lives if something goes horribly wrong during pregnancy. And don’t even go there about advantages and benefits because women are 41% more likely to be POOR than men because of job discrimination, childbearing, lack of an adequate social safety net, and unearned white male privilege.

  • deb-r

    On another post on this issue I raised this point and none of the anti-choice people have responded: what if the pregnant woman had voiced that she wanted to die and had been planning suicide? I wonder if they would have forced her to have an abortion in that case to prevent her from dying? If they had not given this woman life saving medical care could the hospital not be liable for her death or the doctors be charged with manslaughter or at least malpractice? I am lucky to live in a big enough city that we have a choice of hospitals. I have a friend who many years ago lived in a small town with only 2 hospitals in the area–the catholic one was the only one to deliver babies. I am so thankful that her delivery went well so that her other kids still have  a mom and the world is not now missing a wonderful person. How scary is that for women who live in areas without much choice in hospitals.

  • ahunt

    Of the 16,000,000…how many were actually in combat, and how many served in support roles? As it happens, roughly 80% of the modern military jobs are in “support”jobs. Not so many in the Infantry.


    Wonder what the figures were, back when Dad was stopping bullets in the European Theatre?

  • wendy-banks

    No more public funding should ever go to facilities that impose religious limitations on the quality of care.

    Amen to that sister, amen to that.

  • wolverine

    This makes me angry and more than a little unsettled. It makes me want to go get surgically sterilized right away, in case such a thing were ever to happen to me.

    It’s outrageous that they care more about the contents of a woman’s uterus than they do about the woman. “Never mind you, let’s save your baby”. Say what you like, but a real, conscious, breathing woman is always more important than a fetus.