Editor’s Note: Catholic doctrine can make it impossible for doctors at Church-owned hospitals to offer the same medical care as is available at non-religious-affiliated facilities. This is unfair to patients who need a treatment proscribed by the Church, particularly if the patient isnt even Catholic. As you might expect, I believe that, when there's a conflict between medicine and religion, medical science should take precedence. However, we live in a country thats become overbearingly theocratic and conservative (like Teheran, with priests, instead of ayatollahs), so this is probably not a popular position. As was the case with a previous article on priests and child molestation, I'm pretty sure some readers are going to call this piece “Catholic bashing.

Separation of Church and Hospital

Mormons don’t own liquor stores. Orthodox Jews don’t cater pig roasts. And maybe it’s time to consider whether the Catholic Church should be less deeply invested in our healthcare system.

Democrats in Connecticut’s legislature have inserted language into next year’s budget to withhold funding from four Catholic hospitals that deny emergency contraception to rape victims. Republican lawmakers countered with an amendment deleting this provision; however, the Democratic majority delayed debate long enough to prevent the amendment from being acted on, ending the session with a filibuster in which one Democratic representative related Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan.

This parable is more than just a filibuster, however. Who needs assistance and Christian compassion more than a woman who’s just been violated? And who needs a morning-after pill more than a rape victim? The last thing a woman needs is to be told she can’t have a treatment she may desperately want because her hospital’s theology forbids it.

The issue here isn’t the morality of abortion or whether contraception is sinful or even if the Plan B contraceptive is actually an abortifacient. Americans will be debating these issues long after anyone reading these words is dead and buried. The relevant fact is this: According to the laws of the United States, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, these are lawful medical procedures.

In non-theocratic societies, when medical care collides with theological dogma, medicine should take precedence, especially when the healthcare prescribed is completely legal. It makes no more sense to allow Catholic hospitals to deny emergency contraception than it would to enable Jehovah’s Witnesses to prevent surgery patients from receiving blood transfusions or to encourage Christian Scientists to buy up hospitals in which all medical care beyond prayer and faith healing is forbidden.

I don’t want the College of Cardinals determining appropriate medical treatment. Nor do I want Scientologists deciding what services a hospital should offer, based on L. Ron Hubbard’s odd beliefs, and Tom Cruise shouldn’t be dictating what antidepressants a woman could take postpartum. Fortunately, I’ve never seen a large public healthcare facility owned and operated by Scientologists or Christian Scientists.

Which brings us to the crux of this matter:
Where is it written that the Roman Catholic Church needs to own and operate hospitals?

Healthcare is big business, and there are plenty of large corporations willing to run enterprises as profitable as hospitals. The Catholic Church is also a big business, and it’s free to buy real estate agencies, laundromats and department stores if it wants them. But, if its doctrines prevent it from abiding by the law of the land, maybe it should leave the administration of hospitals to less-sectarian organizations.

Some feminists have complained about Wal-Mart’s refusal to offer Plan B contraception in its pharmacies, but that’s a slightly different situation. Wal-Mart hasn’t yet put all its competitors out of business, so customers can still go elsewhere if they need products proscribed by the retailer’s Arkansas Bible Belt management philosophy. If the company chooses to apply its somewhat fundamentalist mentality to its product inventory, there’s no real harm done.

However, unlike the patrons of big box stores, people who need hospital care are often a “captive audience.” In many places, a Catholic hospital may be the only such facility in the local area. And people in emergency situations, such as rape victims, often have little choice about where they’re taken.

Connecticut’s Catholic bishops have called the legislature’s budget provision part of the “abortion rights agenda,” “Catholic bashing” and “extortion,” and Bridgeport Bishop William Lori asserts that the church merely wants to “not be interfered with by the government.” However, Lori’s objections are nonsense ― a bill that would have mandated administering Plan B contraception to rape victims died in committee earlier this year, following intense lobbying by the Connecticut Catholic Conference. The issue really comes down to money.

This matter is analogous to a recent suit brought by law schools determined to keep military recruiters off campuses because of the armed services’ “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuality. In an 8-0 ruling, the Supreme Court sensibly asserted that colleges were free to protest military policies they found immoral, but, for the schools to continue receiving federal funding, they had to grant access to the recruiters. Similarly, if the Catholics want their share of Connecticut’s tax dollars, they should be subject to the same regulations that govern non-denominational hospitals.

Finances aside, emergency contraception could present a dilemma for Catholic doctors. However, those with moral objections to contraception are not being forced to risk excommunication or eternal damnation as a result of the Connecticut legislature’s ruling. No individual is being compelled by statute to choose medicine over personal dogma.

And perhaps the whole problem could be eliminated if the Catholic hierarchy could accept that separation of church and hospital may be an idea whose time has come.

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