Secular Healthcare Preserves Reproductive Justice

Written By: Deb Bauder – 3/15/2023 (updated 4/24/2023)


Imagine having a niece who is 3 months pregnant going to her obstetrician due to bleeding and being told to go to the ER if it happens again.  When she again experiences bleeding the next day and goes to the ER as directed you would want her to understand what is happening and be informed of the possible outcomes and choices she might face so she can collaborate in her healthcare.  If she goes to the ER of a religiously affiliated hospital, she may not have that option.

Exactly this scenario happened in 2013.  Alison returned to the ER 3 times only to be sent home each time without being told what was happening.  She was at risk of miscarrying but wasn’t told which denied her the option of collaborating on next steps of a pregnancy which was threatening her health.  She was instead told she might have appendicitis.  At no point, she said, did anyone at the hospital mention that Alison had the option of ending her pregnancy to address the brewing infection that would end up putting her life at risk. Alison, having searched online for possible causes of her pain, said she asked a doctor if it might be a uterine infection; the doctor wouldn’t make eye contact and told her to talk with her OB-GYN.  (She miscarried in the hospital bathroom while waiting for an ethics committee to decide whether she could receive the needed care and make the arrangements.)

At that time, about 40 percent of hospital beds in Washington state were owned by Catholic health-care systems. Since then, CHI Franciscan has merged with Virginia Mason, and now nearly half the hospital beds statewide are under Catholic ownership. Three cities — Bellingham, Centralia, and Walla Walla — have only a Catholic hospital.   The providers at PeaceHealth would have been able to give Alison an operation to empty her uterus and prevent any further complications if they hadn’t detected fetal cardiac activity. But if there’s fetal cardiac activity, Catholic hospital policies don’t let providers act to terminate a pregnancy until they’ve determined that the pregnant person’s life is at risk.

Catholic health care is a huge industry in the U.S., often known for high-quality, mission-driven service and the ethical and religious directives many of their facilities follow.  Carried out with varying degrees of strictness and workarounds, the directives prohibit medical aid in dying, abortion, some types of fertility treatments and contraception, including tubal ligations and vasectomies. Such facilities also do not typically offer some forms of care for transgender patients.

Across Washington state, many hospitals are violating medical standards by denying or delaying necessary care to pregnant patients who are miscarrying or experiencing an ectopic pregnancy. These patients’ health and lives are being put at risk. We need stronger laws to ensure that this discriminatory and dangerous practice is not allowed to continue. A patient’s treatment should be decided in consultation with their doctor, not dictated by hospital policies set without regard for medical necessity.

Mounting concern about those prohibitions has led to a call for more oversight of healthcare mergers, acquisitions and affiliations, similar to policies in Oregon and California. 

Senate Bill 5241, dubbed the Keep Our Care Act, would authorize Washington’s attorney general to launch a public process to review such transactions and determine whether any would diminish access to affordable care, including reproductive health, end-of-life, and gender affirming services. If so, the attorney general could impose conditions or reject transactions altogether.  Sadly, even though featured in our lobby room SB5241 failed to get out of the Rules Committee.  Please keep an eye out for opportunities to support saving secular healthcare in the future.  The good news is that the following have passed both the WA House and Senate: 

HB 1469 Concerning access to reproductive health care services and gender- affirming treatment in Washington state “Shield Law”. 

HB1155/ Addressing the collection, sharing, and selling of consumer health data. Washington My Health, My Data Act. 

ESHB 1340 Concerning actions by health professions disciplining authorities against license applicants and license holders. 

SB 5242 (HB 1115) Prohibiting cost sharing for abortion. 

SB 5768: Protecting access to abortion medications by authorizing the Department of Corrections (DOC) to acquire, sell, deliver, distribute, and dispense abortion medications