Do Religious Restrictions Force Doctors to Commit Malpractice?

woman with amputated handPicture this: You wake up far too early one morning because your hand is intensely painful and you don’t know why. When the pain gets worse, you go to the ER. The attending doctor, a gray haired man, examines you, draws blood, and then tells you an unusual flesh eating infection in your finger is putting your health at risk. He recommends amputating the hand immediately before the infection causes more harm. What he doesn’t tell you is that at this early stage the simple injection of a state-of-the art antibiotic would solve the problem. Why the omission? His hospital is managed by a self-described religious healthcare ministry that forbids the use of antibiotics.

Across the U.S., religious healthcare corporations are absorbing  once secular and independent hospitals and in the process imposing  religious restrictions that sometimes pit standard medical practice against theology. To the best of my knowledge, no religious system that is licensed to serve the general public forbids the use of antibiotics. But facilities under the direct or indirect control of Catholic bishops are providing maternity care that is tantamount to unwarranted amputation.

Catholic Directives Delay Care, Compel Unnecessary Surgery

Ectopic pregnancy types Recently a woman was traveling across the Midwest when she developed abdominal pain. She and her husband went to the nearest hospital, where she was diagnosed with a potentially fatal ectopic pregnancy. The doctors recommended immediate surgery to remove the fallopian tube containing the misplaced embryo, a procedure that would reduce by half her future chances of conceiving a child. They failed to mention that a simple injection of Methotrexate could solve the problem, leaving her fertility intact. (In fact, at a secular hospital she found on her smart phone, it subsequently did.) Why the omission? The Catholic hospital where she got diagnosed was subject to the “Ethical and Religious Directives” of the Catholic bishops, which state, “In case of extrauterine pregnancy, no intervention is morally licit which constitutes a direct abortion.”

According to Catholic moralists, an injection that destroys an ectopic embryo is a direct abortion, while removing the part of a woman’s reproductive system containing the embryo is not. While this may sound strange (or abhorrent) to outsiders, it has its own internal logic, outlined by Father Tad Pacholczyk at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. Catholic ethics ultimately are determined by theologically based perceptions of what actions God approves and doesn’t approve. While compassion does matter, the end goal is to improve the spiritual standing or righteousness of the person performing the action. These theological dictates may or may not align with the questions that govern secular medical ethics and practice: how to minimize harm and suffering or maximize wellbeing while respecting patient autonomy.

In 2010, a pregnant Nicaraguan woman with metastatic cancer was denied treatment because chemotherapy could harm her fetus, which doctors refused to remove. Though many Protestants disagree, Catholic theology treats any product of conception as a fully formed human being, with rights equal to a woman from the moment of conception whether or not there is any possibility of it actually becoming a person. This means that abortion is an inherently bad action, regardless of outcomes. Nicaraguan law, rooted in this theology, prohibits all abortion even when a woman’s life is at stake. In 2012, a 16-year-old Dominican girl also was denied treatment for weeks while doctors debated whether chemotherapy would constitute an abortion. She eventually miscarried and later died.

Christianity traditionally has regarded women as vessels—vessels for evil and for babies. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety (1 Timothy 2: 13-15). As a consequence, Catholic rules addressing reproduction are particularly convoluted, and sometimes patients pay the price:

A Catholic doctor at a Catholic hospital went against my daughter’s wishes and signed consent to have a hysterectomy because of severe endometriosis. One ovary had already exploded. My daughter had never intended or desired children nor was she in a suitable situation to have a child. She was single, in her late 20s. When she awoke from surgery she learned that the doctor had over-ridden her wishes and consent in an attempt to save her fertility. The operation was botched, leaving my daughter on permanent disability, in pain, with even more health problems than she’d had before. – Comment at Truthout

Religious Directives and Malpractice Law

Secular medical ethics evolved to promote patient welfare and autonomy. As better treatment options become available, providers are expected to keep their skills and knowledge up to date so that they can provide accurate information about the range of options and offer the services most likely to create the best health outcomes for patients. Violation of these norms is considered malpractice.

Medical malpractice can be defined as: “Improper, unskilled, or negligent treatment of a patient by a physician, dentist, nurse, pharmacist, or other healthcare professional.” Whether or not a healthcare provider has provided excellent or unacceptable care depends on the general state of healthcare at the time service is provided.

The critical element is standard of care, which is concerned with the type of medical care that a physician is expected to provide. Until the 1960s the standard of care was traditionally regarded as the customary or usual practice of members of the profession. This standard was referred to as the “locality rule,” because it recognized the custom within a particular geographic area. This rule was criticized for its potential to protect a low standard of care as long as the local medical community embraced it. The locality rule also was seen as a disincentive for the medical community to adopt better practices.

Most states have modified the locality rule to include both an evaluation of the customary practices of local physicians and an examination of national medical standards. Physicians are called to testify as expert witnesses by both sides in medical malpractice trials because the jury is not familiar with the intricacies of medicine. Standards established by medical specialty organizations, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, are often used by these expert witnesses to address the alleged negligent actions of a physician who practices in that specialty. Nonconformance to these standards is evidence of negligence, whereas conformance supports a finding of due care. –Legal Dictionary

The recent case of a young Salvadorian mother named Beatriz offered a graphic example of how religious interference in medical care can force doctor to commit malpractice. Beatriz, who suffers from lupus, was pregnant with a nonviable anencephalic fetus yet was refused an abortion clear through the second trimester, as her condition became increasingly risky. Salvadorian minister of health, Maria Isabel Rodriguez, called her situation a “grave maternal illness with a high probability of deterioration or maternal death.”

“I just want to live,” Beatriz told the press—echoing the sentiments of Savita Halappanavar who died last year after being denied an abortion in Catholic Ireland. Salvadorian doctors were willing to perform the needed abortion, but their hands were tied by laws based in Catholic theology. Finally, at 26 weeks gestation and under international pressure, a Salvadorian court ruled that Beatriz could end the pregnancy—via caesarean section. As in the case of the ectopic pregnancy, Beatriz was offered an invasive surgical procedure rather than the standard treatment which would minimize recovery time and leave her body intact. As best can be determined from news reports, the only reason the doctors had to cut her was to satisfy the Catholic pretense that this was an attempt to deliver a viable baby.

Protest Poster -- Savita Deserved Better.  All Women Do.In the wake of Halappanavar’s death and Beatriz’s dangerously substandard care, Marge Berer, founder of the international journal, Reproductive Health Matters, questioned the ability of Catholic-controlled facilities to provide emergency obstetric services and asked whether they should be formally stripped of their right to provide maternity care more broadly. Unfortunately, with Catholic theology encoded as law in many countries and with Catholic healthcare ministries buying up independent care facilities here in the U.S., a woman may have few other options. If all currently proposed mergers are completed in Washington State, for example, nine counties will have all hospital beds tied to religious institutions by the end of 2013, including the University of Washington system.

Senior Citizen with sign - Give Me Liberty at my DeathWhen bishop directives trump science and patient preference, pregnant women are not the only ones at risk. According to a litany of articles at two watchdog sites, and, the problem of religious interference in health decisions extends far beyond obstetrics and family planning, spanning end of life care, treatment of queer families, and any drugs remotely derived from embryonic stem cell research. As medical science offers us more and more ability to manage sexuality, reproduction, body modification, and our dying process, religious dictates will be increasingly at odds with secular standards of care. Doctors working under these mandates will be forced to offer treatments that, by contrast with the best available, can be classed only as malpractice—a pattern that both patients and personal injury attorneys are bound eventually to notice.

How the Catholic Bishops Outsmarted Washington Voters
Eight Ugly Sins the Catholic Bishops Hope Lay People and Others Won’t Notice
The Difference Between a Dying Fetus and a Dying Woman
Catholic Hierarchy Lobbies to Suppress Religious Freedom
Self-Flagellation and the Kiss of Jesus–Mother Teresa’s Attraction to Pain
The Freedom to Die in Peace
Anti-Contraception Cardinal Paid Pedofiles to Disappear

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles can be found at

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Christianity in the Public Square, Reproductive Health and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Do Religious Restrictions Force Doctors to Commit Malpractice?

  1. Jacques Drolet says:

    Hi Valerie,
    Hope you are doing good. Thank you again for this post. As I recently moved to Germany, I had to discover things are pretty similar here. A young women that had just been raped was turned back when she presented herself at two Christian hospitals in Cologne (Köln). The story went on the news but the hospitals are still working on a revision of their admission process. Makes me speechless. One bishop expressed that they might consider allowing the day-after pill if it can be proven that fecundation did not take place in the case of a rape… speechless again. So writing about this takes courage, but it is so important and necessary. Thank you! Jacques


    • Thank you, Jacque. At this point in history, religion should have no say in healthcare. I understand that when care was largely palliative many hospitals were founded by religious orders. That said, there was also a time when religion provided humanity’s best guesses about how the world worked, where animals come from, and how we should treat each other to attain peace and prosperity. Those days are long gone.


  2. Reblogged this on Barefoot and Political and commented:
    Elegant explanation and reminder of why the Catholic Church should stay out of our nation’s hospitals. Please read and share.


  3. Joe Walsh says:

    Let the law suits commence.
    Drain the churches dry.


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  7. In the case of the woman traveling across the mid-west who experienced an ectopic pregnancy, there aren’t enough details given to determine if she was a candidate for medical treatment with Methotrexate, as opposed to a surgical procedure. This is determined by multiple factors, as indicated in the linked article. If she presented with significant pain, that alone might be a contraindication for Methotrexate. Certainly there would be a need for testing of human chorionic gonadotropin level, kidney and liver function tests, etc. Methotrexate injections are not simple, either, even if they’re deemed appropriate. Monitoring of HCG levels must be carried out at intervals, and multiple injections may be required. Also, Methotrexate is a powerful and potentially dangerous drug with an intimidating black box warning.
    It would be interesting to know more details here, and whether the woman actually pursued a malpractice claim. I can understand the need for patient privacy, but follow-up would be interesting, if that’s possible.


    • Banshee74 says:

      Whether Methotraxate was a viable option for her non-viable pregnancy wasn’t at issue, at many Catholic hospitals it wouldn’t have even been considered. According to current Catholic doctrine the only way to treat an ectopic pregnancy is to remove the affected fallopian tube. The treatment could have consisted of jumping up and down and then sneezing a lot, it still wouldn’t have been offered because it would constitute an intentional abortion, while removing a body part that happens to contain a live fetus is an indirect abortion. It makes no sense, since either way you have a dead fetus, but apparently it makes it more acceptable if you’ve caused excess suffering and physical injury to the woman. This is the same reason why the woman in El Salvador had to have a C-section instead of a regular abortion.


  8. madhvi says:

    i wonder which act will really amount to a crime in God’s eyes …allowing a living woman to die before your eyes when you can help her live well or pretending that you have allowed the fetus to live ( i mean , if the mother dies, the embryo does not even get to trimester two, forget being born alive ) ??? so, in supposedly trying to save one life, are they not really taking two ???


  9. This is a simple problem easily solved. The Catholic church and evangelical Christian churches should not be allowed to meddle in medical care because they have no right to tell a non Catholic or non Evangelical what to do. If religious hospitals refuse to perform standard emergency treatment, they must be held libel.


  10. W S says:

    How do Catholic hospitals justify all the hysterectomies and ovary removals (castrations)? These surgeries are PERMANENT BIRTH CONTROL so they’re obviously in direct conflict with Church doctrine. I suspect economics (profits) are the overriding explanation. However, could it be that the Church deems it necessary to de-sex women once their “childbearing days” are over since, in the Church’s eyes, sex is supposed to be purely for procreation and not for pleasure?

    Whatever the reasons, hysterectomy is usually unwarranted. According to ACOG, 76% don’t meet their criteria for the surgery – Not only are most unwarranted, hysterectomy (with or without ovary removal) is a destructive surgery and increases risk for many health problems and reduced quality of life. This affects not only the woman but her family and all of society. Hysterectomy and/or ovary removal should NEVER be a standard of care except in cases of gynecological cancer. And it’s time that women be given the facts about the consequences so they can give INFORMED CONSENT.

    Just as a man’s sex organs have lifelong (non-reproductive) functions, so do a woman’s. This video explains the LIFELONG FUNCTIONS of the female organs –


  11. Al Sharp says:

    Nice post Valerie. It is unfortunate that there are still situations where people are forced to adhere to such ideas. While I’m okay with those who willingly want to live by such rules, it is absolutely not right to enforce such ideas upon those that do not want to. The lack of proper disclosure about treatment options and making treatment decisions based on the doctor’s religious views and presenting them as fait accompli to patients are inexcusable. There are moral ways as well as legal ways to challenge this. And at least for the time being, legal medical malpractice litigation is definitely the way to go to challenge such tendencies. At the very least, those seeking treatment has the right to be advised on all their options and choose the best one in their case based on all it’s pros and cons.


    • Jacques Drolet says:

      To answer the title question…Unfortunately yes. Recently (last Spring) in Germany a woman was sent away by two catholic hospitals in Kôln when she asked for basic treatments following a rape, arguing she should not have waited a day. Does not go much lower I would dare suggest


  12. What I find interesting is that, when faced with a lawsuit, attorneys for a Catholic hospital in Colorado claimed that a fetus isn’t a “person”.


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  14. jupitaur says:

    Catholic hospitals flourished in large part because nuns work for no pay. The tradition of Catholic health care depends on the unpaid labor of women. It’s sadly ironic that its legacy is again dependent on forcing labor (literal) upon women.


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  16. Patricia. McCoy says:

    Heads up on Tennessee and Alabama deciding that a fetal heart beat equals a full human being. The latter was granted because a “father” was angry that his girlfriend decided to have an abortion. He is calling her and all involved “murderers”and going after them in court! So it seems that in America they didn’t learn from Ireland’s tragedy with Savita.

    How can we stop these cultists? The Impeachment of Trump has GOT to include getting rid of every conservative judge he has appointed with Kavanaugh at the head. The battle in the NEXT decade has GOT to include modifying the Constitution in order to curb these religious fanatics that abuse the rights guaranteed in it!


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