We Must Stop Catholic Hospitals From Closing More Labor and Delivery Units

Ascension St. Vincent’s Riverside Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla. Ascension has cut a quarter of its labor and delivery units in the past decade amidst a nationwide rise in pregnancy- and childbirth-related mortality. (Cliff Hawkins / Getty Images)

When I became a registered nurse almost two decades ago, I chose to work at my local Catholic hospital: Ascension Via Christi St. Francis in Wichita, Kansas. I was drawn to Ascension’s mission of providing care to all people, and particularly to community members in need. I was aware of how our medical system treated people unequally, and I wanted to practice my values—as a Catholic, a nurse, a mother, and a patient advocate—in pursuit of a more compassionate and just society.

Unfortunately, this Mother’s Day provides a bleak reminder of the stark contrast between my Catholic employer’s public image and the reality inside its hospitals. Ascension is one of the largest and wealthiest nonprofit and Catholic hospital systems in the United States. Chances are, you have a loved one who’s been to an Ascension hospital. But the communities that Ascension nurses serve, including expecting parents and newborns, don’t benefit from its billions.
A new report from National Nurses United (NNU)—the nation’s largest union of registered nurses—found that Ascension cut a quarter of its labor and delivery units, just in the last decade. 

As we celebrate mothers and give thanks to those who gave us life, Ascension management must stop these closures, once and for all. They are antithetical to Ascension’s values and put families in harm’s way. 

‘Consolidation’ is not a soothing reassurance for families who need reliable, nearby care. 

During a growing pregnancy- and childbirth-related mortality crisis in the United States, half the counties where Ascension closed labor and delivery units have higher rates of infant mortality than the national average. Ascension’s closures are more likely to take place in areas with higher rates of low-income, Black and Latina patients. These patients, who have greater risk of pregnancy- and childbirth-related complications and death, are exactly who Ascension promises to serve.  

Ascension argues that it cuts obstetrics services at hospitals to “consolidate services,” to provide the “most comprehensive labor, delivery, and postpartum services.” But the barriers our patients face—like transportation and child care—are higher when patients have to travel many more miles away. “Consolidation” is not a soothing reassurance for families who need reliable, nearby care. 

Ascension has created obstetrics deserts in Indiana, where it is one of the largest healthcare providers.

In 2021, Ascension St. Vincent owned four hospitals in counties without any obstetrics services. Now, executives moved obstetric services to Ascension St. Vincent Women’s Hospital in Indianapolis, miles away from where many families live. A year later, Ascension closed St. Vincent Dunn, the only hospital with an obstetrics ward in Lawrence County that covers 452 square miles.

Indiana has some of the highest rates of pregnancy-related mortality in the country.

I am just one of thousands of Ascension nurses—many of whom are also mothers—driven by a love for our communities and our patients and fed-up with Ascension’s hypocrisy.

Ascension must do more than stop closures if it wants to return to its mission. In communities like mine, where Ascension still provides obstetrics services, nurses across the board report severely under-staffed and under-resourced labor and delivery and neonatal intensive care (NICU) units. 

Some neonatal intensive care services and specialties are being discontinued.

Across Michigan, Ascension cut midwifery services, leaving expectant parents scrambling.

In Austin, Texas, labor and delivery nurses struggle without transition nurses, who stabilize the baby after birth in high-risk deliveries that are increasingly common.

In Wichita, my colleagues in the NICU tell me that Ascension has sent babies as far as 200 miles away for simple surgeries, like the placing of a gastrointestinal tube. While Ascension transports the babies by plane, they force parents to find their own transportation. 

I know how tense and fragile this time can be. I’m a mom to triplets, who spent the first months of their lives in the NICU after being born at only 27 weeks. I can’t imagine having to be further separated from my babies. 

I am just one of thousands of Ascension nurses—many of whom are also mothers—driven by a love for our communities and our patients and fed-up with Ascension’s hypocrisy. Starting in 2022, we participated in a historic wave of unionization and strikes across the South and Midwest. Now, we’re fighting to enforce contracts that keep patients safe, to stop Ascension from cutting services for expecting parents and newborn babies, and to hold Ascension accountable to its self-proclaimed mission of providing “spiritually-centered holistic care.”

Here’s the reality: Ascension has the money to invest in improved care for expecting parents and newborns. In 2021, which was the last year this data was publicly available, Ascension reported paying its CEO $13 million, with more millions paid to other executives. Its investment company manages more than $41 billion, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. 

This Mother’s Day, after attending mass, I will pray and hope that Ascension’s leadership will act on what the values of our faith call us to do—as caregivers in a Catholic health ministry that boasts the mission of giving “special attention to those who are poor and vulnerable.” It is not to boost profits or maximize efficiency to impress Wall Street. It is to serve the newborns and families we care for. 

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Lisa Watson is a registered nurse at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis.