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Why Did This Catholic Hospital Try To Ban Birth Control For An Entire Town?


According to a startling report from the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise, doctors affiliated with a small Catholic hospital in Oklahoma were just told they would no longer be allowed to prescribe contraception for the purpose of birth control. In the small town of Bartlesville, OK, the religious directive would only leave just one OB-GYN in the entire town to prescribe birth control for all 18,500 female residents.

The Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise reports that at a meeting held last week, doctors were informed of the new directive barring them from prescribing contraceptives as birth control. According to the report, doctors affiliated with the Jane Phillips Medical Center would still be allowed to prescribe contraceptives for non-birth control purposes, such as cramps, menstrual pain or endometriosis, but would no longer be able to prescribe them as birth control. 

In case you’re wondering — yes, they can do that. Because at Catholic hospitals, doctors are bound by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Servicesa set of religious directives that allows Catholic institutions to implement the type of bans that officials at the Jane Phillips Medical Center just issued. JMPC is owned by St. John Health System, a Catholic institution that uses the Directives to mandate the type of care physicians are allowed to provide.

This week, however, hospital administrators have changed their tune. After the story went viral, prompting a “social media uprising,” hospital officials responded with a statement indicating that the decision of whether to prescribe birth control, and for what reasons, will be left to individual doctors.

The original story, which was reported on Friday evening, sparked immediate outrage. By Saturday night, concerned activists had created Facebook page, “Bartlesville United for Healthcare,” which drew more than 700 “likes” in just two days and initiated a discourse on health care issues extending far beyond Bartlesville. The page captured the attention of citizens, advocacy groups and media across the country, all of whom expressed concern about recent trends in politics spilling over into patient-provider relationships and infringing upon women’s reproductive rights. The role of religion in health care was also a hot topic, with intense conversation surrounding the Supreme Court case that could allow employers to deny women access to birth control based on their personal religious beliefs.

“In a country where issues are decided ‘by and for the people,’ the recent grass roots social media uprising at St. John’s mandate that no birth control prescribing could be performed by Jane Phillips-employed physicians is a victory for all the women receiving care from Bartlesville, Pawhuska, Sedan (Kan.), Caney (Kan.) and Nowata hospitals,” said local OB-GYN Robert Oliver MD, who is not employed by the hospital or St. John. Dr. Oliver would have been the only OB-GYN in town allowed to prescribe birth control if hospital officials had not backed down.

“It is also a victory for the doctor-patient relationship and simply for doctors making decisions for which they are trained,” Dr. Oliver said.

But while the dispute in Bartlesville seems to be resolved, questions like these will continue to arise as Catholic health systems continue to expand. Jane Phillips Medical Center is just one of an increasing number of Catholic-sponsored facilities where standards of reproductive care are compromised by a requirement to follow the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

According to a joint ACLU/MergerWatch report, 10 of the 25 largest health systems in the United States in 2011 were Catholic-sponsored, accounting for $213.7 billion dollars in gross patient revenue and comprising 330 acute-care hospitals with 63,579 beds. And these numbers are rapidly growing.

So why should you be concerned about this? If you happen to end up in a Catholic-sponsored hospital, you may be giving up your ability to make decisions about your own health care. Treatment at Catholic-sponsored facilities is dictated by the Directives — regardless of the ethical and religious beliefs of the patient. The Directives pose a serious threat to reproductive health care, as we saw in the case of Tamesha Means, whose health was put at grave risk when her local Catholic hospital put the Directives above her health needs in treating her miscarriage.

According to the American Civil Liberties, who reported on Means’ case:

Tamesha was only 18 weeks pregnant when her water broke prematurely. She rushed to Mercy Health—the only hospital within half an hour of where she lived. The hospital did not tell her then that she had little chance of a successful pregnancy, that she was at risk if she tried to continue the pregnancy, and that the safest course of care in her case was to end it. The hospital simply sent her home.

She came back the next day, bleeding and in pain, and again was turned away. Again, she was not told of the risks of trying to continue the pregnancy, or what her treatment options were. Tamesha returned yet a third time—by now suffering a significant infection. The hospital was prepared to send her away once more, when she started to deliver.

Tamesha’s baby died within hours of being born—at 18 weeks, it never had a chance.

Catholic bishops aren’t doctors, yet if you walk into a Catholic hospital your health care will be in their hands. Next time you need medical care, you might want to think twice about going to a Catholic facility — unless, of course, you don’t have a problem with receiving your care from the Catholic church, instead of your doctor.


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