Commentary Media

New York Times Omitted Key Fact About Rural Hospital: Its Catholic Rules Could Endanger Women

Amy Littlefield

It’s the latest example of a media outlet reporting on a Catholic hospital while failing to inform readers about the potential consequences of seeking care there.

After she went into labor with twins two months early, Kela Abernathy traveled 100 miles through southeast Missouri to reach the nearest hospital with an obstetric ward, the New York Times reported this week.

But the article about rural hospital closures failed to mention that the hospital Abernathy traveled hours to reach, Saint Francis Medical Center, follows Catholic religious directives that can put the lives of patients like her at risk.

It’s the latest example of a media outlet reporting on a Catholic hospital while failing to inform readers about the potential consequences of seeking care there.

The directives restrict access to abortion, contraception, sterilization, and end-of-life care. For many patients, these hospitals—which account for one in six acute-care beds nationwide—are the only option in their community.

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Catholic hospitals have cancelled surgeries for transgender patients, denied access to tubal ligations, and refused to help patients like Tamesha Means, who was turned away twice while suffering a miscarriage. Women of color like Abernathy and Means are more likely to give birth in Catholic hospitals, so they bear the brunt of these restrictions.

Last year, Dr. Jessika Ralph told me about a patient who arrived at a Catholic hospital in Milwaukee in labor with twins at 18 weeks, long before the pregnancies were viable. The patient miscarried one twin, but the second still had a heartbeat. Because of the hospital’s Catholic rules, Ralph had to wait overnight–about 10 hours–until the patient’s temperature soared and she was ill enough that Ralph could act to save her life.

Then, because the hospital did not carry medication that could have hastened her labor, or employ supervising physicians trained in the surgery that could have ended her pregnancy within minutes, the patient labored for more than 24 hours to deliver a fetus that had no hope of survival.

I thought about this story as I read the Times article, wondering what could have happened to Abernathy if she had gone into labor earlier and her only option was a hospital that might have refused to help her.

Media outlets reporting on Catholic hospitals routinely fail to mention the way they curtail access to care. In December, the Wall Street Journal reported on the potential merger of two Catholic health systems that would have created “an entity of unprecedented reach,” but failed to mention anything about the possible implications for reproductive health. This week, the New York Times neglected to even mention that Saint Francis is Catholic.

But the public wants to know about these restrictions, and it’s the duty of publications like the Times to inform them.

More than 80 percent of women in a recent survey said it was important to know about a hospital’s religious restrictions on some critical forms of care when deciding where to go for medical needs. Yet many do not know. While about one in six women nationwide name a Catholic hospital as their go-to place for reproductive health services, more than a third of these women did not realize the hospital was Catholic.

Catholic hospitals “don’t want patients to know the doctrinal restrictions on care, because people wouldn’t go there,” Dr. Debra Stulberg, co-author of the aforementioned reports, told Rewire.News in June.

The Trump administration is acting to expand the ability of health-care providers to deny a range of services by citing religion. It’s more important than ever that news outlets like the Times do their part to address this information gap by noting when a hospital restricts health care on religious grounds.

Evidence-based journalism is the foundation of democracy. Rewire.News, is devoted to evidence-based reporting on reproductive and sexual health, rights and justice and the intersections of race, environmental, immigration, and economic justice.

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