The powerful constraints on medical care in Catholic hospitals across America

Rachana Pradhan, Hannah Recht | KFF Health News (TNS)

Nurse midwife Beverly Maldonado recalls a pregnant woman arriving at Ascension Saint Agnes Hospital in Maryland after her water broke. It was weeks before the baby would have any chance of survival, and the patient’s wishes were clear, she recalled: “Why am I staying pregnant then? What’s the point?” the patient pleaded.

But the doctors couldn’t intervene, she said. The fetus still had a heartbeat and it was a Catholic hospital, subject to the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” that prohibit or limit procedures like abortion that the church deems “immoral” or “intrinsically evil,” according to its interpretation of the Bible.

“I remember asking the doctors. And they were like, ‘Well, the baby still has a heartbeat. We can’t do anything,’” said Maldonado, now working as a nurse midwife in California, who asked them: “What do you mean we can’t do anything? This baby’s not going to survive.”

The woman was hospitalized for days before going into labor, Maldonado said, and the baby died.

Ascension declined to comment for this article.

The Catholic Church’s directives are often at odds with accepted medical standards, especially in areas of reproductive health, according to physicians and other medical practitioners.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ clinical guidelines for managing pre-labor rupture of membranes, in which a patient’s water breaks before labor begins, state that women should be offered options, including ending the pregnancy.

Maldonado felt her patient made her wishes clear.

“Under the ideal medical practice, that patient should be helped to obtain an appropriate method of terminating the pregnancy,” said Christian Pettker, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the Yale School of Medicine, who helped author the guidelines.

He said, “It would be perfectly medically appropriate to do a termination of pregnancy before the cessation of cardiac activity, to avoid the health risks to the pregnant person.”

“Patients are being turned away from necessary care,” said Jennifer Chin, an OB-GYN at UW Medicine in Seattle, because of the “emphasis on these ethical and religious directives.”

Jennifer Chin, an OB-GYN at UW Medicine, says it’s not realistic that the onus be put on patients to avoid Catholic hospitals’ care restrictions. Their health insurance may not include other hospitals, “or that’s where the ambulance is taking them and they don’t really have a say.” (Dan DeLong/KFF Health News/TNS) 

They can be a powerful constraint on the care that patients receive at Catholic hospitals, whether emergency treatment when a woman’s health is at risk, or access to birth control and abortions.

More and more women are running into barriers to obtaining care as Catholic health systems have aggressively acquired secular hospitals in much of the country. Four of the 10 largest U.S. hospital chains by number of beds are Catholic, according to federal data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. There are just over 600 Catholic general hospitals nationally and roughly 100 more managed by Catholic chains that place some religious limits on care, a KFF Health News investigation reveals.

Maldonado’s experience in Maryland came just months before the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2022 to overturn Roe v. Wade, a decision that compounded the impact of Catholic health care restrictions. In its wake, roughly a third of states have banned or severely limited access to abortion, creating a one-two punch for women seeking to prevent pregnancy or to end one. Ironically, some states where Catholic hospitals dominate — such as Washington, Oregon, and Colorado — are now considered medical havens for women in nearby states that have banned abortion.

KFF Health News analyzed state-level birth data to discover that more than half a million babies are born each year in the U.S. in Catholic-run hospitals, including those owned by CommonSpirit Health, Ascension, Trinity Health, and Providence St. Joseph Health. That’s 16% of all hospital births each year, with rates in 10 states exceeding 30%. In Washington, half of all babies are born at such hospitals, the highest share in the country.

“We had many instances where people would have to get in their car to drive to us while they were bleeding, or patients who had had their water bags broken for up to five days or even up to a week,” said Chin, who has treated patients turned away by Catholic hospitals.

Physicians who turned away patients like that “were going against evidence-based care and going against what they had been taught in medical school and residency,” she said, “but felt that they had to provide a certain type of care — or lack of care — just because of the strength of the ethical and religious directives.”

Following religious mandates can be dangerous, Chin and other clinicians said.

When a patient has chosen to end a pregnancy after the amniotic sac — or water — has broken, Pettker said, “any delay that might be added to a procedure that is inevitably going to happen places that person at risk of serious, life-threatening complications,” including sepsis and organ infection.