Last week, women in Bartlesville, Oklahoma faced a terrifying possibility. According to a new religiously based directive from the town’s main health care system, only one OB-GYN in the entire town would have been allowed to prescribe birth control. So access to contraceptives in the city would have gone something like this: Is Dr. Oliver your OB-GYN? If so…congratulations! You can continue receiving prescription contraception for birth control. If not…too bad! Unless you require contraceptives for reasons other than birth control, you can no longer receive a prescription from your physician.
That’s right. According to a report by the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise, a new directive would have required physicians affiliated with Jane Phillips Medical Center to stop prescribing contraceptives for the purpose of birth control, leaving the city of over 18,500 women with only one OB-GYN (the aforementioned Dr. Oliver) with the ability to do so.
Fortunately, the people of Bartlesville, and elsewhere, recognized the outrageousness of this possibility. After the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise story went viral and there was outpouring of social media opposition, St. John Health System, which owns Jane Phillips Medical Center, released a statement clarifying that while the institution itself does not approve or support contraceptive practices, physicians maintain the ability to prescribe medications “in accordance with their independent professional medical judgment.”
While this seems to resolve the dispute in Bartlesville, questions like these will continue to arise as Catholic health systems continue to expand. Jane Phillips Medical Center is just one of an increasing number of Catholic-sponsored facilities where standards of reproductive care are compromised by a requirement to follow the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
As a joint ACLU/MergerWatch report showed, 10 of the 25 largest health systems in the United States in 2011 were Catholic-sponsored. Together, these health systems accounted for $213.7 billion dollars in gross patient revenue and 330 acute-care hospitals with 63,579 beds. And these health systems are rapidly expanding.
What do those abstract numbers have to do with you? If you walk into a Catholic-sponsored hospital, you may be giving up your ability to make decisions about your own health care. These Directives dictate treatment at Catholic-sponsored facilities regardless of the ethical and religious beliefs of the patient, and they pose a serious threat to reproductive health care. For an example of this, look no further than the case of Tamesha Means, a woman whose health was put at grave risk when her local hospital put the Directives above her health needs in treating her miscarriage.
It is critically important that we monitor this expansion and ensure that our ability to govern our own health care remains intact. Like the people of Bartlesville, the public must stand up to ensure that basic medical treatment isn’t denied in the name of religion.