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The powerful constraints on medical care in Catholic hospitals across America

Rachana Pradhan, Hannah Recht, KFF Health News on

Published in News & Features

Nurse midwife Beverly Maldonado recalls a pregnant woman arriving at Ascension Saint Agnes Hospital in Maryland after her water broke. It was weeks before the baby would have any chance of survival, and the patient’s wishes were clear, she recalled: “Why am I staying pregnant then? What’s the point?” the patient pleaded.

But the doctors couldn’t intervene, she said. The fetus still had a heartbeat and it was a Catholic hospital, subject to the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” that prohibit or limit procedures like abortion that the church deems “immoral” or “intrinsically evil,” according to its interpretation of the Bible.

“I remember asking the doctors. And they were like, ‘Well, the baby still has a heartbeat. We can’t do anything,’” said Maldonado, now working as a nurse midwife in California, who asked them: “What do you mean we can’t do anything? This baby’s not going to survive.”

The woman was hospitalized for days before going into labor, Maldonado said, and the baby died.

Ascension declined to comment for this article.

The Catholic Church’s directives are often at odds with accepted medical standards, especially in areas of reproductive health, according to physicians and other medical practitioners.

 

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ clinical guidelines for managing pre-labor rupture of membranes, in which a patient’s water breaks before labor begins, state that women should be offered options, including ending the pregnancy.

Maldonado felt her patient made her wishes clear.

“Under the ideal medical practice, that patient should be helped to obtain an appropriate method of terminating the pregnancy,” said Christian Pettker, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the Yale School of Medicine, who helped author the guidelines.

He said, “It would be perfectly medically appropriate to do a termination of pregnancy before the cessation of cardiac activity, to avoid the health risks to the pregnant person.”

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©2024 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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