Doctors at Catholic hospitals may be unable to refer women for services

Source: Reuters

By Kathryn Doyle

(Reuters Health) – According to interviews with U.S. physicians, some Roman Catholic hospitals not only refuse to provide some women’s health services like abortion, but may also prevent doctors from referring women to facilities that would provide them.

Services including sterilization, contraception and fertility services can be similarly prohibited, according to the small study.

“One thing that did surprise me is that some hospitals really do seem to leave women with little to no information when it comes to abortion care specifically,” said lead author Dr. Debra Stulberg of the University of Chicago. “For other services, whether it’s something a Catholic hospital allows or not, they will facilitate getting the appointment, sending records, etc.,” she told Reuters Health.

“But I’m not speaking across the board for everyone, it wasn’t always black and white,” Stulberg said.

Catholic healthcare institutions make up 15 percent of acute care hospitals in the U.S., and clinicians employed in them are bound by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. These directives prohibit some reproductive healthcare services, but some Catholic theologians still believe doctors should openly explain all options to their patients, even ones they are not able to provide.

Professional ethics guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommend that clinicians who deny patients reproductive services for moral or religious reasons provide a timely referral to prevent patient harm, but whether or not physicians at Catholic facilities actually make these referrals is unclear, the authors write in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.

For the study, a sociologist interviewed 27 practicing obstetrician-gynecologists with experience working at a Catholic hospital by phone, asking open-ended questions about how hospital policy affected their patient care.

In some Catholic hospitals, administrators and ethicists allowed for or even encouraged referrals to places like Planned Parenthood, but in others, referral was actively discouraged, or doctors kept their referral activity hidden.

“We talked to doctors with a range of opinions on abortion, some of whom strongly expected to share the values of a Catholic hospital,” Stulberg said. “Sometimes they were surprised because policies changed” and attitudes toward referrals may depend on which bishops issue new directives, she said.

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