What FiveThirtyEight gets wrong about Catholic hospitals
The website FiveThirtyEight has identified a worrying trend sweeping the nation: Too many hospitals are affiliated with the Catholic Church. As a result, people who want procedures such as abortions, vasectomies, tubal ligations and gender reassignment/confirmation surgeries are forced to travel, sometimes tens of miles, to have them done. This, apparently, is a scandal.
The first piece in its series is troublingly partial and borderline dishonest, a surprising fit for the outlet founded by celebrity statistician Nate Silver, for whom I have always had respect. By casually defining the services at issue as “standard medical procedures,” it begs the question of whether hospitals should provide them. And by ignoring the existence of millennia-old teachings by the church, let alone their merits, it treats one side of a contentious debate—and the constitutionally dubious side, at that—as if it were uncontroversially, self-evidently true.
(If you’re curious about the other side, I wrote a feature for America on this very subject more than a year ago.)
For a website with a quantitative bent, FiveThirtyEightis surprisingly willing in this case to use statistics to obscure the truth.
For a website with a quantitative bent, FiveThirtyEightis surprisingly willing in this case to use statistics to obscure the truth. It notes, for instance, that in 45 communities in the United States, the sole hospital is a Catholic institution. The denominator in that equation—45 of how many total? 100? 10,000?—is not disclosed. The nearest the article comes to offering that kind of important context is to cite a MergerWatch report claiming that one in six hospital beds in the country is Catholic-owned or affiliated. And of those roughly 17 percent of beds, how many have non-Catholic options nearby? The authors, Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, either did not bother to find out or decided not to tell us.
There is a qualitative sleight-of-hand at play here as well. The piece creates the impression that men at Catholic hospitals have insidiously pushed women out of decision-making positions. Back when nuns were primarily in charge, Barry-Jester and Thomson-DeVeaux write, “what was permitted and forbidden wasn’t always clear,” and so “doctors sometimes had more opportunities to seek exceptions for patients or offer care through loopholes.” Now that the bishops and their “stricter interpretation of religious doctrine” have taken control, marginalized patients don’t stand a chance.
Is that true? It surely is the case that the church has institutionalized its oversight and clarified its teachings over the last 300 years. Yet when the authors want someone in a position of authority to defend the policies they find so problematic, they quote a press release from “the president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association,” who emphatically calls the procedures “an assault on the dignity of human life.” Tellingly, they fail to mention who the president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association is: not a man but Carol Keehan, a sister of the Daughters of Charity.
The most offensive thing about FiveThirtyEight’s argument is how thoroughly it strips female patients of all human agency.
In any case, the question that really matters is whether religiously affiliated hospitals can be forced against their will to perform abortions and the like—and the answer to that question is no. Despite ongoing challenges from the American Civil Liberties Union and others, the courts have been unanimous on this point, siding with the bishops each and every time. As Judge Ernest Goldsmith put it, “Religious-based hospitals have an enshrined place in American history and its communities, and the religious beliefs reflected in their operation are not to be interfered with.”
The arguments against interference are not just constitutional. MergerWatch has been at pains to alert the public that remote communities are increasingly likely to have only a Catholic hospital nearby. This is in part because “rural hospitals, particularly independent ones, are struggling financially and closing down by the dozens,” the article says. So the Catholic Church is keeping hospitals afloat in places where no other medical institutions have managed to survive—and this is an argument for targeting them with legal action?
The Catholic Health Association’s Sister Keehan was not having it when I interviewed her for my story last year. “When some of the people who are making these statements have done as much for this country as Catholic health care has, then I think they might achieve some standing,” she said.
For me, the most offensive thing about FiveThirtyEight’s argument is how thoroughly it strips female patients of all human agency. “As many as 40 percent of women don’t come back for a postpartum visit with their OB-GYN, so if the hospital where they deliver their baby won’t offer contraceptive procedures or devices, they may not have a second opportunity to easily get long-term contraception,” Barry-Jester and Thomson-DeVeaux aver, before quoting a retired obstetrician saying that in such cases, “We’ve lost them, and then they can’t get that care.” One could be forgiven for thinking these were references to wildlife in a catch-sterilize-and-release program, not adult women in the most advanced country on Earth. Last I checked, people are not bound forever to the hospital where they give birth, and needing to make a second doctor’s appointment is not an obstacle so insurmountable as to warrant jettisoning the First Amendment.
That the A.C.L.U. threw away its commitment to religious freedom in the name of abortion rights is bad enough. A journalistic enterprise as ostensibly sane and data-driven as FiveThirtyEightshould think twice before following the same path.