Late last week, FiveThirtyEight published the piece “How Catholic Bishops Are Shaping Health Care in Rural America,” a reported article that scrutinized Catholic hospitals for adhering to Church teaching and refusing to provide contraception or perform abortions, voluntary sterilizations, or sex-reassignment surgeries. (I responded to that piece here.)
At the end of that article, the authors promised it’d be the first of a series “exploring other ways in which patients are funneled into Catholic health systems.” They were as good as their word. Yesterday, FiveThirtyEight published a second slanted article on the same topic, this time with a slightly different focus — on the way that insurers refer patients to Catholic hospitals . . . which then adhere to the Church’s moral guidelines on reproductive health.
There was markedly little improvement in religious literacy from one piece to the next.
The new article, like the old, was based on the inaccurate premise that a particular bishop or faceless panel of bishops whimsically invents policies for Catholic hospitals on a case-by-case basis. This is a fundamental misrepresentation of Catholic teaching, which applies to the entire Church and which can be applied straightforwardly to the vast majority of health-care questions. Certain reproductive procedures are held to violate human dignity; Catholic hospitals abide by that teaching. It’s actually that simple.
Unlike in last week’s article, the authors do bring themselves to admit that Catholic hospitals’ overrepresentation in serving low-income patients might have something to do with the Church’s central mission to assist the needy and the sick. But once again, they go on to spin this as potentially harmful:
Catholic providers have a long history of prioritizing care for poor and underserved communities, and their overrepresentation in Medicaid plans is likely related to that mission. But doctors and advocates express concern that when restrictions on care aren’t made clear to patients — either by Medicaid or by the hospitals themselves — low-income women may struggle to obtain reproductive health services like birth control.
The examples the authors include are clearly meant to reinforce just how much of a “struggle” this really is. For instance, they mention one woman who “ended up going to a Planned Parenthood in an inconvenient location” (emphasis added) to obtain the contraception she wanted. This is depicted as a tremendous burden, one that can be avoided only if Catholic hospitals are shamed, or perhaps even coerced, into offering contraception — and violating their moral vision in the process.
The piece also includes comments from physicians in Catholic hospitals, who are upset that they can’t perform procedures they believe necessary. The authors disregard — or perhaps are unaware — that the Catholic Church teaches these procedures are impermissible precisely when they aren’t medically necessary. A hysterectomy, for example, can be medically necessary if a woman is diagnosed with uterine cancer — and a Catholic hospital would surely offer that procedure. If a woman wants a voluntary sterilization, a Catholic hospital would not perform it because its purpose would no longer be to cure a disease but to maim a properly functioning human body.
The piece concludes with a lengthy digression, insisting many people don’t realize that their local hospital is operated by the Church or that its Catholic nature means certain procedures will be unavailable. It’s as if the authors are unaware that the Internet is readily accessible on the phones that we all keep on our persons at nearly all times. Also useful in this context are the crucifixes most Catholic hospitals display in prominent locations and the rather obvious names with which they label themselves: St. Vincent’s or Mary Immaculate or Holy Cross and so on.
Though the overall tone of the piece and its example cases are evidently meant to insinuate that women are placed in life-threatening situations due to the refusal of reproductive procedures, this is simply untrue. Such emergencies are exceedingly rare, and Catholic hospitals will always do what’s necessary to save a woman’s life. It’s ludicrous to imply that performing a voluntary sterilization directly after a C-section or implanting an IUD or receiving an elective abortion amounts to an emergency.
If FiveThirtyEight must conduct a multi-article report on Catholic hospitals, its reporters should endeavor at the very least to articulate the reality of Catholic teaching — and to eliminate the tone of suspicion and derision toward the Church and its teachings.