The Corner

Health Care

The Fatal Flaw in FiveThirtyEight’s Reports on Catholic Hospitals

St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bloomington, Ill. (Wikimedia Commons)

Over the last two weeks, FiveThirtyEight — normally a fairly responsible mainstream outlet — published a series of three reporting pieces, scrutinizing Catholic hospitals for adhering to Church teaching and refusing to provide birth control, abortion, and sterilization.

Though I’ve written twice now in response to two of these articles, noting flaws in the authors’ framing of key facts — and their omission of others — it’s worth asking why FiveThirtyEight decided in the first place to publish three consecutive pieces hammering Catholic hospitals from slightly different angles. (One piece examined how Catholic hospitals restrict these procedures; the next pointed out that insurers funnel women into Catholic hospitals . . . which then restrict these procedures; the last noted that many patients are unaware local hospitals are Catholic . . . and thus that they restrict these procedures.)

The unspoken assumption of all three articles is that birth control, abortion, and sterilization are quite obviously necessary health-care services, and that as a result, any hindrance to obtaining them is a serious injustice. The fact that the authors merely assume this premise — with no explicit acknowledgement or further explanation — almost wholly accounts for the deficiencies in their reporting and framing.

In essence, these pieces are the reporting equivalent of furious left-wing reactions to the Trump administration’s “reproductive rights” policy changes, such as rolling back the Health and Human Services Department’s Obamacare mandate. The far Left treated this move as an all-out assault on American women and cast the administration as misogynistic and oppressive for protecting religious employers from being coerced into providing contraceptives and abortifacients that they believe are immoral.

FiveThirtyEight’s coverage of Catholic hospitals emerges from and is grounded in that same worldview. If obtaining birth control or an abortion as quickly and easily as possible is considered a human right, even the slightest roadblock becomes a human-rights violation.

Consider the way these pieces frame the stories of women unable to get the services they wanted at the local Catholic hospital. Darolyn Lee “ended up going to a Planned Parenthood in an inconvenient location” (emphasis added) to obtain the contraception she wanted. Melanie, meanwhile, braved “hours of phone calls . . . to switch her insurance provider.” Angela and Stel “waded through layers of bureaucracy . . . to get the vasectomy at a nonreligious hospital.”

The authors insinuate time and again that such minor inconveniences are more like insurmountable obstacles — the underlying implication being that any challenge to rapidly obtaining birth control or sterilization should be much more concerning to us than the idea of hospitals contradicting Church teaching in order to provide immoral procedures. In short: Get with the times, Catholics.

This flawed perspective — along with the portrayal of Catholic hospitals as the enemy of their patients rather than as the nation’s top health-care institutions — stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the procedures in question and the reasons the Church opposes them.

Abortion is the most obvious example. The Church has long opposed direct abortion because of the fundamental Catholic teaching of the inherent dignity of every human life — a teaching that has only been strengthened as science continues to confirm that a fetus is a living human being from the moment of conception.

Contraception and sterilization meanwhile, are considered by the Church to be offenses against the human person, though less grave than abortion. According to the Catholic vision, true health care must enable the human body to function as it is intended, or to flourish. Under this definition, intentionally hampering, thwarting, or crippling the human reproductive system is not health care.

Wholly ignored by FiveThirtyEight are cases in which a Catholic hospital would offer these procedures because they constitute true health care. A Catholic hospital would, for instance, perform a hysterectomy for a woman diagnosed with uterine cancer, but not for a woman who requested a hysterectomy for the purposes of voluntary sterilization. One treats a disease; the other destroys a healthy organ.

But it seems likely the authors of the FiveThirtyEight series are unaware of these distinctions — and if they are aware, they chose not to inform their readers. In fact, it took them until the final article to so much as mention that the Catholic Church doesn’t consider these procedures to be health care at all.

This FiveThirtyEight series evidently embraces the cultural presumption that immediately accessible reproductive “health care” is essential — and thus that Catholic hospitals must abandon the pesky and outdated moral teachings that are making people’s sexually liberated lifestyles so inconvenient.

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