How Religious Hospitals Block Access to Reproductive Care—Even in ‘Safe Haven’ States

Across from the Planned Parenthood clinic, Catholic nuns pray with a group of anti-abortion activists on Sept. 2, 2023, in New York City. Abortion rights activists staged a counterprotest. (Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images)

Most of us do not want a stranger’s ideology controlling our futures. If you live in a “blue” or “abortion haven” state, you may feel protected from abortion bans, but the truth is, your healthcare may be limited by the religious interests directing your local hospital. 

Growing up in a religiously conservative family and now living in Idaho, I know how it feels to be hemmed in by someone else’s dogma. As CEO of the largest Planned Parenthood affiliate in the country covering three “abortion haven” states and three states with extremist-backed abortion bans, I have a unique vantage point: I see the stark differences between them and troubling similarities threatening patients’ access to healthcare.

No matter what state you live in, you may not be able to get the care you need because the ambulance took you to a hospital controlled by a religious institution

In Indiana, one of the states my Planned Parenthood affiliate covers, abortion is technically legal in cases of rape and incest. But extremist-crafted policies now allow only hospitals to provide abortion—and because many of these hospitals are religiously affiliated, the rape and incest exemption in Indiana’s abortion ban is practically meaningless. 

Only one of the state’s eight largest hospital systems said they would provide abortion in cases of rape or incest, the Indiana Capitol Chronicle found. The other seven are controlled by (you guessed it) religious interests, whose policies don’t allow for abortion care, even when patients are in dire need. If you’re a rape or incest victim, you only have one hospital in Indiana—the Indiana University medical center in Indianapolis—that can help you.

My region also covers Washington, one of the most progressive states, where patients have strong legal protections for abortion care. However, Washington patients face some of the same issues as Indiana patients because almost half of the state’s acute care hospital beds are controlled by a religious group, potentially limiting their access to life-saving care.

You may not be able to get the care you need because the ambulance took you to a hospital controlled by a religious institution. 

Abortion bans—whether administered by a religiously controlled hospital or the state—are a systemic way to oppress and control the lives of people with the least access to healthcare and resources. They are racist, harming historically marginalized Black, Brown, Indigenous and other people of color. They discriminate against low-income people who often cannot afford to travel or get time away from jobs to access abortion care in “haven” states.

These aren’t bugs or unintended consequences of abortion bans. Racism and economic disparities are abortion bans’ intended features. 

For years, religious hospitals have quietly implemented their abortion bans, even in “blue” states, where they can dominate entire marketplaces.

In recent years, there have been several hospital mergers in Washington with religiously affiliated healthcare corporations. In some counties, the only hospitals or healthcare facilities serving the public are religiously affiliated. The ACLU of Washington documented the horror of obstetricians as they referred patients to “faith-based” hospitals who then refused or delayed terminations of pregnancies with complications, even if a patient’s health was at stake.

Over the years, we’ve seen patients attempt to end pregnancies through dangerous means, when they felt no other options. We’ve seen assault survivors struggle to meet the deadlines imposed by the state to terminate their rapist’s pregnancy.

Whether you’re in Indiana, Washington, or another state, this threat to our access to healthcare from religious hospitals underscores the importance of Planned Parenthood health centers and other safe spaces that provide accurate information to make informed choices, unbiased by ideology or fear of political consequences.

Whether in a “red” or “blue” state, we must demand transparency from those using religious sanctimony to deny us the healthcare we need and control of our own lives. 

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Rebecca Gibron is CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Northwest, Hawaii, Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky.