Department of unintended consequences: The excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride has apparently drawn the attention of the ACLU. CNS reports: "In a July 1 letter to the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the ACLU said the Phoenix case and others cited in an October 2008 article in the American Journal of Public Health show that 'religiously affiliated hospitals across the country inappropriately and unlawfully deny pregnant women emergency medical care.'" The ACLU's letter charges that Catholic hospitals have violated both the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, "which requires hospitals that participate in Medicare and Medicaid to treat patients in emergencies and active labor, and the Conditions of Participation for hospitals receiving Medicare and Medicaid funds, which require that patients be informed of their rights prior to furnishing or discontinuing care."
Womansenews reports that the controversy aroused by McBride's censure "is an opportunity to identify and rectify a troubling and dangerous violation of federal law potentially taking place in Catholic hospitals across the country." The allegation is apparently that pregnant women cannot expect comprehensive care at Catholic institutions because of the church's objection to the use of abortion as an optional response to prenatal crisis of some sort. Womansenews reports: "The law rightly requires hospitals to provide life-saving medical care to their patients," said Vania Leveille, ACLU legislative counsel. "The government must ensure that the well-being of the patient does not take a back seat to religious beliefs."
The CNS report includes a response from Catholic Health Association President and CEO Sister Carol Keehan that "a couple of stories that the ACLU has dredged up doesn't hold a candle to the competent care and respect for both mothers and their infants that have been a daily part of life in the maternity units and neonatal units of Catholic hospitals for decades." Keehan said that in contrast to the "unsubstantiated" examples cited by the ACLU stands a history of "hundreds of thousands of women and their infants who have been cared for wonderfully well" in Catholic hospitals.
That's certainly a fair assessment, but it's not likely to provide much protection to Catholic institutions targeted by an HHS probe. The possibility of a broad investigation of procedures at Catholic hospitals or, in a worst-case scenario, the loss of Medicare/Medicaid funding can't be good news for Catholic institutions. This latest flashpoint between church and secular beliefs is not far off from the recent contretemps over foster care and adoption by gay parents which led to the withdrawal of Catholic social agencies from longstanding child welfare services in Washington. If the ACLU and similar critics are able to provoke a federal investigation it could have the ultimate net effect of driving Catholic entities out of health services, which have been a long-standing part of its active engagement in U.S. civic life. To a minority view which rejects any government-funded social service role for religious institutions this would be a social good. The folks living in economically downsized communities where Catholic health centers may be among the last civic institutions standing, public or private, might have a different perspective.