Catholic Death Panels Coming to a Hospital Near You

When you have a medical emergency, you want to get to the nearest hospital–fast. But if you’re a pregnant woman with a medical emergency, the nearest hospital may refuse to treat you if it’s Catholic-run. The medical personnel may have to let you die, because the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops–or as I’ve begun to think of them, the Catholic Death Panel–has ordered Catholic hospitals to deny women care they deem immoral.


It’s hard to believe, but administrators, physicians and nurses who work in Catholic health-care facilities have abdicated responsibility for their female patients to the 258 men who make up the U.S. Conference of Bishops. That group has decided that pregnant women aren’t patients–they’re merely incubators.

And if you’re not Catholic, you’re still subject to the restrictions placed on those hospitals. You will not be able to have an abortion, even if your life is at risk. You can’t receive emergency contraception if you’ve been raped. There will be no treatment for an ectopic pregnancy or an incomplete miscarriage. Contraception and sterilization will be out of the question.

If you live in a major urban area, you would probably choose a secular hospital if you want to avoid such restrictive care. But in some places, the only hospital around is a Catholic one. And in an emergency, you may  have no choice but to go to a Catholic hospital if it’s the nearest facility.

That would be quite all right with Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa). You may remember him–he and his pal, former Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, almost derailed national health care reform last year with their anti-choice demands. Stupak’s no longer in the House but Pitts is, and he’s determined to force the Catholic Bishops’ will on Americans.

Pitts is the author of the H.R. 358, the so-called “Protect Life Act,” which refers not to the woman’s life, of course, but to fetal life. It’s an expansion of the “conscience clauses” that allow anti-choice doctors and nurses to refuse to provide abortion services. Pro-choice advocates are calling it the “Let Women Die” Act because it allows hospitals to refuse treatment to women who need emergency abortions to save their lives. The hospitals wouldn’t have to facilitate such women’s transfer to other hospitals, either.

Explains Molly M. Ginty in “Treatment Denied,” her article about Catholic hospitals in the new spring issue of Ms. magazine:

The U.S. Congress started to pass ‘conscience clauses’ pushed by the Roman Catholic Church and anti-abortion forces in the immediate wake of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973. Today, these laws apply not only to physicians and nurses who oppose abortion, but to the entire institutions whose ‘consciences’ allow them to withhold medically indicated care.

The “consciences” of those institutions means that the medically untrained 258-member  Catholic Death Panel will dictate what medical care will be provided in those facilities.


We’ve seen how one Bishop practices medicine. After a Catholic hospital in Phoenix saved a woman’s life by terminating her pregnancy, Bishop Thomas Olmstead severed ties with the hospital, stripping it of its Catholic identity and excommunicating Sister Margaret McBride, a member of the ethics committee. Excommunication is the severest form of censure the Church can impose, and Olmstead was letting all Catholic medical professionals know who was calling the shots about medical care in Catholic establishments.

If H.R. 358 passes, we can expect many more stories about women who’ve been denied medical services because a Bishop considers them immoral. And it’s not just abortion that will be withheld: According to Ginty, the Bishops have developed a whole list of reproductive health care services that are off limits, from in-vitro fertilization to vasectomies.

The  assaults on our reproductive freedom are sure to continue. The U.S. Conference of Bishops may not consider women’s lives important, but most people don’t agree. So we have to speak out loudly and often to expose their deadly misogyny.

Ginty proposes working at the policy level and on a personal level. After all, the life we save may be our own.

Photo from Flickr user Eneas through Creative Commons.

This blog is part of the #HERvotes blog carnival. Read more HERvotes posts by Ms. and other women’s groups.


  1. I am a feminist, I am a nurse, and I work at a Catholic organization. I work in the ER–and I am a sexual assault nurse examiner. We provide emergency contraception. We treat ectopic pregnancies with surgery. We do not do abortions, but none of the hospitals in our rural area do (and neither does our closest Planned Parenthood). Please don't make the problem worse by lumping all organizations together. There are many nurses and physicians advocating for patients and treating patients well in Catholic institutions. Our small rural institution also focuses on the poor and underserved, and does millions of dollars in charity care a year.

    • Carol King says:

      I'm calling attention to the issue of Catholic bishops interfering with medical decisions and imposing their fundamentalist religious beliefs on everyone. It's important for us to understand that when Catholic health systems buy out previously secular hospitals, we are allowing a small group of men to make decisions about our health care. Women's lives are at risk – and their loved ones are at the mercy of these callous, self-righteous zealots.

      • While I appreciate your story and the information and agree that we have to closely watch the politicians and religious groups in general (esp. paternalistic ones), I don’t see where bishops are allowed to make health care policy as a rule or “call the shots”. They can make a stink, and they can influence politicians, but it is really the healthcare lobbyists (particularly the AMA–whole other number of problems there)who shape the rules of healthcare. I was heartened rather than disheartened by the Phoenix story–we should focus on the heroes who stand against the zealots. That story really had a happy ending from what I read–except maybe for the nun who was ex-communicated. But I bet she would make the same decision in the end even knowing the outcome. Women have much to fear from the zealotry of religious groups in general–and some healthcare systems, both religious-based and for-profit. I think it is a problem when news stories generalize an issue. I am proud to be a feminist and work in a Catholic healthcare system. If I thought women, esp. sexual assault patients, were being treated poorly, I wouldn’t work here. When I started at this institution in 1994 sexual assault patients weren’t treated correctly because of a lack of knowledge and services, not because it was a Catholic hospital. Sometimes the best way to change a system is from the inside out–that is why I became a sexual assault nurse examiner. The easiest thing I did was get emergency contraception stocked for our patients. The hardest thing I have to do? Deal with the primarily male police force and military police in our area.

        • Carol King says:

          This isn't a generalization – it's a fact. The Catholic Health Association acknowledges that the bishops have the final say. The Catholic hospital in which you work is bound by this agreement. If they ignore the bishops, they do so at their own risk. I wish more Catholic health care providers would stand up to the zealots who are in charge, but until they do, we must alert women and their families to the dangers.

          • I don't agree with bishops deciding patient treatment, but the directives do allow for EC & treating ectopic pregnancy with removal of the fallopian tube–often the quickest & safest procedure.The facility I work at is working within the directives, intentional or not. EC is not a abortifacient–which I am sure you know. It has been solidly proven in evidence-based medicine. Most lay & religious people don't have a clue about what EC is, or that "partial birth abortion" is a made up term for a medical procedure. We (meaning health care providers & providers of news) need to present the most accurate information without inflammatory comments. People need to be active participants in their health care. If I were sexually assaulted, I wouldn't go to the hospital 30 miles south–they don't provide adequate treatment (a for-profit, non-religious hospital)–I would go 30 miles north. When I knew my health system was lacking in pediatrics, I traveled outside the system for delivery of my baby & pediatric services, even though it meant driving past the hospital I work at to get there.16 states have laws requiring health care facilities provide EC to sexual assault patients. We need to extend these laws to all fifty states.

      • Male_1sttimevisitor says:

        If you want to complain about self-righteous zealots, maybe you ought to complain in Saudi Arabia instead of the country where you are given more rights and freedoms than any place on earth in the known history of mankind.

        I'm sure you'll find them and their religion and tolerance, to be much like ours, to be unprecedented, but without a doubt, not in benevolence or any other positive human trait or quality. And better yet, you also have the freedom to get the hell out of this country ASAP to visit this said paradise.

        • Laurie Bee says:

          What in the heck does Saudi Arabia have to do with decisions made by a bunch of UNMARRIED men, who will never have to face death from a tubal pregnancy? And what does advocating for health care for women have to do with love of country?? I should leave the country because I was happy that a hospital saved my daughter’s life when she had an ectopic pregnancy and also want other women to have the same RIGHT TO LIFE? What in the world are you raving about…it makes no sense.

        • Ah yes, the Marginalisation Hierarchy™.

        • What an odd response this post is!! What is the relevance to this? My guess, you must be one unhappy Catholic. As far as my Native self is concerned, yup, you Catholic oppressors can pack it up and pack it in, Kitten, but sadly, I’m stuck with you.

          Bummer for me! See, I have to freedom to tell you off. Pretty cool, huh? I’m NOT Catholic, and I don’t want your stuff rammed down my throat. Great, you believe in a scientific unprovable. I’m sorry for you, but it’s your issue.

          I believe that if they accept any sort of federal dollars, they need to keep their so called morality to fellow Catholics. As an NON Catholic taxpayer, I want them to treat everyone, or they can forget abut tax dollars. Plain and simple.

          Also, I feel that the Church owes reparations to the Native nations; the children they stole, the rapes and the genocide the Catholic church condones. Yup, Mr. MalewhattheHell, you owe baby.

          You could go move to where ever your land grabbing, trespassing, genocidal, disease spreading ancestors came from…

          Just sayin’…

        • That’s a really stupid joke! The US is closer to countries like Saudi Arabia than to Europe when it comes to personal freedoms.

    • Lindsay Beyerstein says:

      Hi, Amanda, I'm a journalist working on a project about health care in Catholic hospitals. I'd love to talk with you at greater length about your experiences as a feminist health care provider in a Catholic medical facility. Please drop me a line at frege (at) mac (dot) com. It would be great to get your perspective.

    • @Amanda “We treat ectopic pregnancies with surgery”
      Right, you remove woman’s body part reducing her chances to have a future child by half when there is less invasive treatment available e.g. an injectible drug or removal of the fetus through the incision because your hypocritic bishops think it’s OK to remove a body part containing a fetus but not OK to remove a non-viable fetus. You are a hypocrite. With an ectopic pregnancy there is zero chance of any baby ever being born, yet, even knowing that your science-illeterate bishops choose to harm a woman instead of giving standard-of-care treatment. What about all of those babies that the woman whose fallopian tube you removed could’ve had but will not?

      You are a joke. You impose your wish to believe in fantasies on everyone.

  2. I did a little research on this one. Where did you source this persuasive information? I love my Ms. Magazine but I want to read the bottom line please?

  3. Stop Killing says:

    I live in Chicago and I have a friend that was diagnosed with uterine cancer and she was pregnant. She wanted to keep the baby and treat her cancer after the baby was born. However, her Catholic doctors and St. Joseph, the Catholic hospital, performed an abortion to save her life so that she could go home and be a mother to raise her 3 other children (all under 7 years) and be a wife and life partner to her husband of 15 years.

    It is hard for me to believe the Catholic church would let a woman die based on the reasons in this article. All the Catholic church wake is why not PREVENT pregnancy instead of murdering defenseless pre-born humans. I don't agree with the Catholic church stance on birth control methods, but I do support people living.

    • Carol King says:

      Your friend was lucky to find a Catholic hospital that would treat her, not the fetus, as the patient. If you look at the position of the Catholic Health Association, you'll see that they defer to Bishops in these matters. I'm not saying you can't find a compassionate Catholic physician or hospital, I'm saying you're taking a chance when you enter a Catholic health care facility.

    • I had a tubal ligation in a secular hospital in 1986. Unlucky me…

      That rat bastard surgeon, mine got called away on a family emergency, was a Catholic, who decided that I really didn’t want a complete sterilization, even though the last pregnancy nearly killed me. Oh no, he decided that I needed a REVERSABLE procedure, and informed me AFTER he’d done it, the he had, in his all powerful maleness, that he knew what was better for me.

      Yeah. Keep in mind, this is in a secular hospital.

      I told that SOB that if I got pregnant, at any point in the future, that I would not only sue for malpractice, as I had NOT signed for that, but I’d also make damn sure he paid child support and health insurance for that child until that child left college. Since he felt that strongly, the support of any children that issued from here on out was on HIS bank account. He paled.

      He whined. He snivelled. I threw his sorry ass out.

      Lucky for that horrible man, I did not get pregnant. I was pretty upset to have to take birth control after having had a tubal ligation.

      SOB. Yeah, you were lucky, dear StopKilling. Far as I’m concerned Right to Lifers need to put their money up. You don’t like abortion, adopt the child and shut up. Also, support food stamps, welfare and WIC.But no, that’s where the argument breaks down. They love to bellow, but they have NO plan to pay for it…

  4. Already happened in Phoenix AZ at St. Joseph's hospital. A woman's life WAS in danger unless pregnancy was imped terminated. It was performed the woman of the nuns who made the decision was excommunicated. Hospital stripped of it's Catholic affiliation as a result of saving a LIVING human woman.

  5. Really, now. Do you really want people to believe all this ?

  6. Were I to be a single, pregnant woman outside a small town in a rural area, and in a life threatening situation with no time to research the policies of the nearest emergency rooms, I’d throw myself on the, hopefully, humane mercies of the deciding doctor, trusting blindly that he had my and my child’s best interests at heart.

    If it’s documented that Bishops have jurisdiction over a womb of a different credo, I feel frightened for the young and uninformed female in trouble.

  7. This could be a problem, as some hospitals facing possible closure because of operating costs are merging with Catholic hospitals. The hospital I work at merged with one a couple years ago, eliminating tubal ligations as one of their srugical procedures they used to perform.


    • Oh my God, Pam, you are so right!!!

      When my mother was in the hospital to deliver my brother (he was the 5th out of 9 that survived), my father was very worried because he was informed by the doctor that if there was any possibility that he would have to choose between saving our mother or saving the near term baby, he was required to save the baby. Fortunately, both survived. However, years later, my mother told me that she knew she was dying when she saw the “white light and felt my soul leave my body. I prayed to Saint_______ not to make my other children orphans, and that’s why I gave him the saint’s name”.

      If the religious right can demand no public funding for their causes, surely, women ought to be able to demand the same for their survival.

  9. jackie says:

    I’ve worked as a nurse in a catholic hospital for 23 years, and been a reader of Ms magazine for 35 years. We perform bilateral tubal ligations on a daily basis. We do not put the life of the fetus ahead of the life of the mother. Your article is reactionary and inflammatory. Please get your information straight before publishing such scare tactics.

  10. This article is outrageous in it’s anti-catholic rhetoric. The USCCB is well within it’s rights to ensure that Catholic hospitals operate within the ethical and moral guidelines of the Catholic Church. How dare anyone suggest that it should do otherwise. I didn’

    Our bishops are not a bunch of “unmarried men” or mysoginists. In your outrage and anti-catholic rhetoric, you left out the fact that you know absolutely nothing about our beautiful faith and the esteem in which women are held, why we know that abortion and contraception is WRONG and those who have religious reasons for not wanting to participate in abortion should not be forced to.

    Nobody in these hospitals is abdicating their responsibility to the bishops. The bisops have a sacred duty to ensure that their flocks are aware of the moral danger of participating in abortions. You say they are oppressing women, we say we are caring for them. Catholics will NEVER allow abortion to go unchallenged, as it is the taking of human life.

    By the way, you shouldn’t go out of your way to use the word fetus instead of baby, they mean the same thing.

  11. and BTW, if you read the Reuters article posted above, it clearly states that the Bishop had been working with the hospital for months over ethical misconduct that had been going on for years.

  12. The church should stay out of hospitals and out of medicine. Religious beliefs should not impact women receiving the best possible medical treatment.

    The Catholic church should stay out of women’s decisions about birth control, abortion and hysterectomy. Because of the church’s stand on contraception, many Catholic women are left with hysterectomy as their only choice for birth control. And, like the majority of women, they are not informed that the uterus is not just a baby bag, it has important functions that that are essential all of a woman’s life. Female Anatomy: the Functions of the Female Organs at

  13. @ Amanda Catholic Hospitals SHOULD NOT be giving any form of contraception period emrgency or not.

  14. Without regard to any political party or rhetoric, there ARE death panels, and I lost my Glenda to one, followed by the apparent suicide of her son, Bruce, when he learned of his mother’s death. Whatever form of medical care is in our future, they will continue, thanks to medica cover-ups and public indifference. See the ugly details as

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