How Catholic Hospitals In America Has Been Diminishing A Patient's Rights to Know

A Patient’s Right to Know

Catholic Hospitals Perpetually Has Been Abolishing Patient's Rights When The US Laws Defer To Religious Dogma

Informed consent is a fundamental principle of modern healthcare, which means that a patient undergoing treatment has the right to know several things about that treatment, including all known risks and all medically accepted alternatives. 

And then, before the treatment commences, a patient should be required to sign a document that verifies that all information has been presented. In the United States, Catholic healthcare systems do not fully participate in informed consent. 

That’s because physicians who practice in those networks are obliged to follow the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERD), issued by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. The ERD forbids treatments that incorporate, among other things, contraception, abortion, fertility assistance, and certain options available to terminally ill patients. 

And because Catholic healthcare systems are religious organizations, they are exempt by law from even letting their patients know that treatments not provided in their facilities may be available elsewhere. These religious exemptions extend to medical education as well. 

For example, even though terminating a pregnancy is sometimes a medical necessity and not a choice at all, several federal laws provide religious exemptions so that healthcare providers can refuse to even teach or learn abortion procedures. 

As they take advantage of this favored status granted to them as religious organizations, these healthcare systems also receive billions of taxpayer dollars in the form of Medicare and Medicaid compensation. 

Here are some examples of treatments that are neither provided nor even discussed in Catholic healthcare networks: 

  • Birth control of any kind, including tubal ligations and vasectomies. Any prevention of pregnancy is prohibited by the ERD, so if a woman or a couple wants to prevent pregnancy, they will not get information or services to assist them. 
  • Abortion and ectopic pregnancy termination. This includes procedures for women whose lives are at risk because of complications, whose pregnancies are not viable, or whose fetuses are not viable. As long as there is a fetal heartbeat, nothing will be done to terminate a pregnancy, even when it means a prolonged miscarriage. Complications range from severe emotional trauma to deadly infections. 
  • Right to die. In five states, it is legal for a patient with a terminal illness to choose to end their life with the assistance of a doctor. The ERD not only forbids physician participation but also refuses to allow patients to be informed of their rights. 
  • Fertility assistance, such as in-vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and sperm/egg donation. Even a married man and woman who are unable to conceive cannot receive information about fertility treatment. 
  • Certain cancer treatments. The ERD forbids cancer treatments that involve the removal of reproductive organs, even if the treatment increases a patient’s chances of survival. 

According to MergerWatch.org, Catholic hospitals account for more than seventeen percent of all hospitals in the United States. In Iowa, Washington, and California, they account for more than forty percent of all hospitals. 

In 2016, American Atheists launched a legislative initiative called the Patient’s Right to Know Act (PRTKA), which, if passed into law, would require healthcare systems to inform their patients of all services and treatments not provided in their facilities due to religious or philosophical objections. 

Under this legislation, physicians would not be compelled to provide any of these treatments, and they would not be required to refer a patient to a provider who would.

All they would have to do is let their patients know upfront about treatments they will not provide because of religious or philosophical objections—and how these objections impact a patient’s access to a specific treatment.

We are working with a broad coalition of organizations, including the National Organization for Women, to have this legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures. 

Thanks to the Secular Coalition for Arizona, the PRTKA was introduced in the Arizona House of Representatives as House Bill 2664 with nine sponsors last February. 

The original sponsor was Democrat Randall Friese, a physician and the Ranking Member of the House’s Health Committee. 

Though the bill did not make it out of the Republican-controlled committee, it was a big win for the new legislation. In June 2020, the Delaware House of Representatives voted down the PRTKA in form of House Bill 366 after St. Francis Healthcare, a Catholic system in Dover, objected to the legislation. 

This fall, American Atheists plans to work again with groups in these two states, as well as in Iowa and Connecticut, to get the legislation introduced and passed. 

Your involvement can make a difference. Call or email your representative and ask them to sponsor the legislation. For more information, go to AtheistVoter.org/patients.

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Amanda Knief

By Amanda Knief, National Legal and Public Policy Director for American Atheists

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