Treatment Denied

Kathleen Prieskorn gasped in shock as her medical nightmare began. Still reeling from the heartbreak of an earlier miscarriage, Prieskorn was three months pregnant and working as a waitress when she felt a twinge, felt a trickle down her leg and realized she was miscarrying again.

She rushed to her doctor’s office, “where I learned my amniotic sac had torn,” says Prieskorn, who lives with her husband in Manchester, N.H. “But the nearest hospital had recently merged with a Catholic hospital—and because my doctor could still detect a fetal heartbeat, he wasn’t allowed to give me a uterine evacuation that would help me complete my miscarriage.”

To get treatment, Prieskorn, who has no car, had to instead travel 80 miles to the nearest hospital that would perform the procedure—expensive to do in an ambulance, because she had no health insurance. Her doctor handed her $400 of his own cash and she bundled into the back of a cab.

“During that trip, which seemed endless, I was not only devastated, but terrified,” Prieskorn remembers. “I knew that if there were complications I could lose my uterus—and maybe even my life.”

Ordeals like the one Prieskorn suffered are not isolated incidents: They could happen to a woman of any income level, religion or state now that Catholic institutions have become the largest not-for-profit source of health-care in the U.S., treating 1 in 6 hospital patients. And that’s because Catholic hospitals are required to adhere to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services—archconservative restrictions issued by the 258-member U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Because of the directives, doctors and nurses at Catholic-affiliated facilities are not allowed to perform procedures that the Catholic Church deems “intrinsically immoral, such as abortion and direct sterilization.” Those medical personnel also cannot give rape survivors drugs to prevent pregnancy unless there is “no evidence that conception has already occurred.” The only birth control they can dispense is advice about “natural family planning”— laborious daily charting of a woman’s basal temperature and cervical mucus in order to abstain from sex when she is ovulating—which only 0.1 percent of women use.

The Catholic directives involve not just abortion and birth control but ectopic pregnancies, embryonic stem cell research, in-vitro fertilization, sterilizations and more. “The problem with [the directives],” says Susan Berke Fogel, an attorney at the National Health Law Program in Los Angeles, “is about substandard care becoming rampant in the U.S., threatening women’s health and women’s lives.”

Catastrophe was only narrowly averted in 2009 when a 27-year-old, 11-weeks-pregnant patient in Arizona staggered into the emergency room of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix with such severe pulmonary hypertension that her doctors determined she would die without an immediate abortion. The ethics committee voted to break hospital policy and advise the woman of her option of a lifesaving abortion. The woman chose to have doctors terminate the pregnancy.

But when the bishop overseeing the Phoenix diocese heard about this, he declared that St. Joseph’s could no longer be a Catholic institution unless it agreed to follow Catholic “moral teachings.” The Bishop forbade Catholic Mass in the hospital’s chapel and excommunicated Sister Margaret McBride—the only nun on the ethics committee.

The Phoenix story drew national outrage, but lesser-known cases of religious doctrine affecting medical care are rampant. In Oregon, a bishop threw out a medical-center director from his diocese for refusing to stop sterilizing patients. In Arizona, a couple raced to a Catholic hospital ER after the wife miscarried one of a pair of fetuses, only to be sent to a secular facility after doctors determined that the twin fetus was still alive—though not viable. And in New York, doctors at a Catholic institution neglected to terminate an ectopic pregnancy (in which the fertilized egg begins to develop outside the uterus) even though the embryo could not possibly survive and the patient faced a potentially fatal rupture of her fallopian tube.

How did we get to the point where 258 right-wing bishops—all (supposedly) celibate male clerics—are prohibiting doctors from practicing medicine and denying women essential reproductive care? The debacle starts with anti-choice legislation. 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 entire institutions whose “consciences” allow them to withhold medically indicated care.

Even as recently as 2008, the George W. Bush administration issued sweeping regulations to give health-care workers the right to refuse to take part in any procedure that “violates” their religious beliefs. The Obama administration moved to reverse this policy in February (making it explicit that contraception is not covered by conscience provisions), but 47 states and the District of Columbia now allow individuals or entities to refuse women reproductive health services, information or referrals.

You don’t have to be a Catholic to end up at a Catholic hospital that refuses you lifesaving care. A Catholic facility might be the only one in your area, and when you expect treatment you may get dogma instead.“Religion in America should mean that the church runs the church,” says Barry Lynn, the executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “It shouldn’t mean the bishops are running your reproductive life.”

Photo of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix by Serwaa Adu-Tutu.

Excerpted from the Spring 2011 issue of Ms. To read the full story and have this issue delivered straight to your door, join the Ms. community.

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  1. Truly frightening. Thought the days of the Inquisition were long gone…

  2. Laurie says:

    I need to formulate a medical proxy that states I am never to be brought to a Catholic hospital for any reason.

  3. As a newly emerging Catholic I have so much to say about this issue. The paragraph which resonated most strongly asked rightly why 258 male clerics are making such decisions about women’s care.

    What sort of Catholic am I going to be? Very verbal I suspect and I WILL speak out on issues like this one. The Catholic church must get itself out of the Ark and realise that God gave us the ability to save the lives of women if they are ill in pregnancy. The poor woman with pulmonary hypertension – presumably the Bishop involved wod have preferred both she AND the baby died together rather than use the God given skill of a surgeon to save one of their lives. It beggars belief.

    • @Amanda:

      incidents such as these got my out of the Catholic Church 25 years ago. It is too difficult to be a thinking woman in the Church. From experience, I can tell you that the Mother Church is not tolerant of outspoken women. Or remotely interested in their opinions. Good luck on your journey.

      On the other hand, bless that doctor, whoever he/she is, for giving a patient money for a cab to a distant institution actually interested in saving her life and reproductive capability. Why do such things need to happen in a modern country? Hw does the administrators of that Catholic hospital reconcile placing a women’s health at risk in a situation such as this? There was no chance of a positive outcome.

      • Amanda,

        I know you’re not asking for advice, but I would just like to like to make a suggestion. First, when you read articles like this that imply or outright state the Church’s position on women, abortion, women’s healthcare, etc….Always take your concerns back to an authentic Catholic source for clarity. Even the Catechism. There are alot of these articles out there. But you’ll notice that rarely do they contain any evidence of even attempting to obrain comment or clarity from the Church when discussing an incident. And as a result, it has become a popular misconception, often times deliberate, that the Church would sooner let a woman die than tend to her because her baby would die. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Her life is as precious as her child’s. She’s precious whether she’s had kids or not, had an abortion, given birth, pregnant…..always.

        But many groups out there, resentful of the Church’s beliefs about abortion on demand and artificial contraception, would have us believe that the Church treats women as simply unimportant vessels whose lives are worth less than the children they carry. IT’s an outright lie. So as you continue on your journey, read, read, read and pray for wisdom. God will open your eyes.

        The woman with pulmonary hypertension actually had her choices taken away by the doctors who insisted that she abort. She had been to the hospital weeks before with symptoms and they wouldn’t treat them because she was refusing an abortion. They let her go home in the same condition she arrived in. And that’s a deadly condition. They lied to her. And the woman profiled in this story….do a search. Many articles come up, and although the attitude toward the church remains the same, the details of the story change drastically. For example, in another version, her doctor gives her the option of going home to see what happens, or going to the hospital to have the abortion. Doesn’t quite sound like that life and death emergency above. He probably figured that by the time she got to the hospital, the baby would have passed away and then the extraction would have been okay to do. But he gambled. He knew his hospital’s rules. He misjudged, and that’s probably why he gave her cabfare.

        In a nutshell, when a story like this sounds so awful, do some research. Consult with authentic Catholic belief. You always find that something just doesn’t hold up in these accounts. And you always find that no attempts are made to gain comment from the Church.

        God bles you on your journey. And please, read about the Church’s beliefs about women. You will be pleasantly surprised.

  4. Just had this experience yesterday when I went to the doctor for a sterilization consult. Who would have thought in Portland, Oregon of all places?!?

  5. The problem as I see it, is too many people are allowing this, because of the omnipresence of God in our daily lives. He’s on our money, He’s on billboards on the way to work, He’s on people’s tongues as they go about their life. Which is fine. I applaud people who can be devout and pious in their beliefs. But there is a dividing line between fanatical and religious – and when you cross over to one side or the other, that is when you need to take a step back and ask yourself what is -really- morally acceptable. You don’t need to believe in God at all to know this type of control is horrendously wrong. And while there may be so much good involved in religion of any kind, there are bad points to it, too, and they certainly outweigh the prior.

  6. Bob Dobbs says:

    Why didn’t she just go to Manchester OB/GYN Associates and Reproductive Services of Manchester across the street from the hospital, which does, according to its website, provide the services she needed?

  7. @Bob Dobbs

    The Manchester Ob/Gyn is not open extended hours, it’s not even open on weekends. Especially given that this was an emergency the patient would have needed to go to a hospital. Not to mention the danger her life may have been in. The Manchester Ob/Gyn would not have been an option even if they had been open.

  8. Had this been the case at my hospital when I miscarried my twins last December, I would have died. They were 19 weeks, the result of IVF (in other words VERY WANTED), but an infection set in. Even well after my water broke, both still had heartbeats but could not survive for another day, much less long enough to be viable.

    Had we been forced to wait until their heartbeats stopped naturally, it’s very likely that mine would have stopped first. And on the slim chance that I did survive, I would have been forced to have a hysterectomy, thus destroying my hopes of ever having a family.

    How is tying a doctors hands from saving the one viable life still on the table “pro life” in any way, shape, or form?

  9. Nothing -the physical pain of labor, the possible loss of one’s own life-can compare to the pain of losing your own child. I can think of no other time when a woman needs the comfort and support of her family, her friends, and -most especially- of her religious community — to heal. This is a case of a politician -in this case Catholic priests-attempting to make rules in a playground where they don’t have any practical expertise.

  10. I just wished to point out the connection between eating issues and infertility difficulties. In a new recent post i just read, Eating issues frequently interrupt menstrual cycles, however info is sparse regarding long-term outcomes of these types of problems upon fertility and behaviour when it comes to maternity. Investigators analyzed these types of issues througly as well as the desired info is non conclusive! plus, The actual portion involving women in the United states having their first baby at or even after age 31 has quadrupled ever since the mid-70s!

  11. The risk of infertility from cancer therapy might be much higher than medical doctors and individuals understand. Just about all ladies recognized within their Early twenties as well as Thirties who want children at some point should be given the option of freezing their eggs or embryos, Bay Area male fertility specialists point out.

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