Medical Drama: AU Urges Maryland Officials To End Deal With Catholic Hospital

Health care decisions are best made by patients and their families in consultation with doctors and other medical experts – not clerics.

I’ve written before about a situation in Montgomery County, Md., where state officials seem determined to turn construction of a new medical facility over to group affiliated with the Catholic Church.

The deal means that residents served by the hospital won’t get certain services. Catholic hospitals operate under a series of strict directives promulgated by the U.S. Catholic bishops. They don’t offer birth control, “morning after” drugs for rape victims, sterilization operations and certain infertility treatments. In addition, patients’ end-of-life directives may be overridden if they conflict with church dogma.

Most alarmingly, the bishops are increasingly taking the hardest line imaginable on abortion, insisting that the procedure not be performed even when the mother’s life is in danger. (Read more about a troubling case from Phoenix here.)

Americans United joined several other groups to try to stop the Montgomery County proposal. State hospital regulators turned a deaf ear to our pleas and approved the arrangement.

But that doesn’t mean AU is giving up. Yesterday, AU sent a letter to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and other state officials warning that the proposal raises constitutional concerns.

The letter, signed by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, notes that under the deal, Holy Cross Hospital would lease 26 acres of public land. As part of the proposal, Holy Cross will offer nursing training to students at the county’s community college.

These future nurses would be required to abide by the bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives on Medical Care. Requiring a public community college to enforce religious doctrines creates an impermissible merger of church and state, AU argues.

Furthermore, AU asserts that the county’s decision to enter into an arrangement with a Catholic hospital “would place coercive pressures” on county residents to use a medical facility that operates under sectarian directives.

“The courts have held unconstitutional governmental empowerment of a private religious program in a situation where pressure is placed upon attendees to participate in the program, or where the religious provider is given veto power over the kind of services that would be made available to the public,” Khan wrote.

Maryland officials need to take AU’s complaints seriously. They also need to explore other options. An Adventist health-care group, for example, has put forth a competing proposal. Although the Adventists are also religious, they do not restrict access to reproductive services.

Health care has been in the news a lot lately, as federal courts examine the constitutionality of President Barack Obama’s plan. Americans obviously have different opinions about that measure. But I would hope we could all agree that when it comes to health care, decisions are best made by patients and their families in consultation with doctors and other medical experts – not clerics who, lacking the proper training, merely default to their rigid dogma.

We’ll keep you apprised of future developments. This fight is not over yet.

P.S. I’ll have a full-length piece on this topic if the upcoming March Church & State. It will be online and in mailboxes early next month, so check it out.