When Americans who are fortunate enough to have healthcare insurance require medical care, depending on the level of coverage they have, they most likely seek out a specialist trained to treat their particular infirmity because they need someone knowledgeable in diagnosis and treatment options with a high efficacy rate. If a person has a history of heart problems, they would likely not choose a podiatrist for treatment, and unless they adhere to cult beliefs that reject medical science, they would certainly not seek medical treatment from a member of the clergy. However, if a woman is having a miscarriage or a difficult pregnancy and she visits a Catholic hospital, chances are a priest will diagnose and recommend treatment based on Vatican dogma and the bible, and not obstetrics and gynecological medicine.
In October 2012, many Americans were outraged at news a 31-year old woman died of sepsis after being denied her request for the termination of a nonviable pregnancy because “Ireland is a Catholic country” and Vatican policy forbids abortions. The woman, Savita Halappanavar, was 17 weeks pregnant and miscarrying when she was admitted to a hospital on October 21 complaining of back pain, and the consulting obstetrician and gynecologist that treated her indicated she made a written request to terminate her pregnancy; religion won and she died a week later. In America, a woman who was 16 weeks pregnant with twins was diagnosed as a “molar pregnancy” which can lead to cancer and the woman “didn’t want to carry the pregnancy further.” When she presented with vaginal bleeding, because it was a Catholic hospital, an ethics committee decided uterine evacuation was tantamount to abortion, and because there was a minute chance one of the fetuses would survive, the woman was “transferred out.” A real doctor who witnessed the woman’s case said, “The clergy who made the decision Googled molar pregnancy despite the fact that terminating a bleeding molar pregnancy is safer in the hospital setting due to a high risk of hemorrhage,” but she was sent away nonetheless.
According to a recent study in the American Journal of Bioethics Primary Research, there is an increasing level of doctors’ concerns about miscarriage care in Catholic hospitals that mirror those of the woman in Ireland, and many doctors said they preferred to send patients elsewhere than subject women to diagnosis and treatment by priests on ethics committees. Since the 1990s, Catholic hospitals have expanded to the point that they treat one in six U.S. patients, and in a national survey, 52% of OB-GYNs at Catholic hospitals clashed with priests on ethics committees over proper care, including treatment of ectopic pregnancy and birth control to protect the health of the woman. Women with difficult pregnancies and miscarriages needing immediate treatment are not abortion cases; they require miscarriage management or emergency treatment of nonviable pregnancies to avert the risk of infection. However, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) disagrees with standard secular medical ethics that put the woman first and have issued “ethical” directives that treat the fetus with separate and equal standing regardless putting the woman at greater risk of infection and death.
Americans have witnessed growing strife over religion and denial of medical care playing out over contraceptive requirements in the Affordable Care Act and in Congress over “conscience clauses” that allow religious medical providers to refuse treatment or participate on any level if they believe harm will come to a fetus. There is no consideration for a woman’s health or a physician’s conscience being violated when their treatment recommendations for the health, life, and often the woman’s wishes are circumvented by an ethics committee at an increasing number of Catholic hospitals that grant life and death power to a panel of priests following USCCB orders.
In a typical Catholic hospital case, a woman was miscarrying a fetus that was far from viability and despite being ”given antibiotic after antibiotic,” the woman grew sicker and sicker leading a recently trained doctor to perform an emergency lifesaving procedure in the hospital. The doctor faced “a tremendous amount of retaliation” in a hearing where the committee said “We can’t save all the mothers, this was someone we couldn’t do anything with” in defending their decision to let the mother die to save a nonviable fetus. The doctor’s action did save the mothers’ life, informing that real medical ethics were superior to male USCCB ethics and the priests who enforce them. One doctor said, “the great tragedy here, to my mind, is the straitjacket that a religious worldview imposes on the complexity inherent within clinical medicine,” and yet across this country clinical medicine is increasingly overruled by religious fanatics who are protected by Republican-supported “conscience clauses” and religious ethics panels.
It is a travesty that in a secular nation with arguably the most technologically advanced medicine in the world, clergy are dictating medical practices and making life and death decisions based on religious views. Worse, is that any pharmacist, nurse, emergency medical technician or religious employer is given the power to decide a woman’s reproductive health, or withhold emergency medical treatment if they “suspect” a woman is pregnant, or a patient is gay. However, those are the consequences of living in an emerging theocracy where conservative legislators grant power to religious educators, medical providers, and employers to impose their religion on the rest of the nation under auspice of religious liberty in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution and other Americans’ religious freedom. The USCCB has garnered inordinate power of life and death over women unfortunate enough to suffer problematic pregnancies, as well as their reproductive health in denying contraceptive coverage at every turn.
When John F. Kennedy was running for the presidency over 50 years ago, Republicans argued if elected, his Catholic faith would give the Vatican control of the country. Little did Americans know that half a century later, Republicans would cede control over women’s reproductive health and pregnancy treatment to the Vatican by way of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops. As America inches closer to a theocracy, and it is inching closer, the protections granted in the Constitution will be supplanted by religious ethics committee’s edicts, and if any American thinks it cannot happen, they can look to the medical field where the only requirement to practice medicine is being a male with a funny collar, rosary beads, and Vatican law.