Why Catholic Hospitals Could Represent The Next Big Threat To U.S. Women’s Abortion Access

Despite the fact that Roe v. Wade has been in place for over 40 years by now, women’s reproductive rights still aren’t safe. Anti-choice activists are chipping away at women’s access to reproductive health care from all angles — piling on dozens of state-level restrictions, driving up the cost of abortion services, and ultimately enacting as many barriers as possible for women seeking to terminate a pregnancy. But the players in the fight over women’s reproductive health isn’t limited to lawmakers. In fact, the next big threat to women’s legal abortion access could be the unelected hospital officials at Catholic-affiliated institutions.

The Catholic Church has a huge hospital network across the country, with more than 600 hospitals organized under the Catholic Health Association (CHA). The CHA estimates that about one in six patients in the U.S. is cared for in a Catholic hospital. But, since the care provided in those Catholic-affiliated institutions must adhere to the Church’s strict pro-life teachings, those patients can’t receive any abortion services or end-of-life care.

So, when secular hospitals merge with Catholic-affiliated ones, it brings up questions about the implications for patients’ access to that type of health care. As the unfolding situation in Washington state illustrates, hospital mergers can impact even the residents of largely progressive states that have embraced reproductive rights:

Washington is heavily Democratic, leaning left especially on social issues. A majority of voters even put into law a statutory right to abortion in 1970 — the only state ever to do that. The governor, Jay Inslee, a Democrat, is pushing the Legislature even now to pass a law at a special session on Monday requiring health insurers to pay for elective abortions, another first for the state if it makes it to Mr. Inslee’s desk.

But now a wave of proposed and completed mergers between secular and Roman Catholic hospitals, which are barred by church doctrine from performing procedures that could harm the unborn, is raising the prospect that unelected health care administrators could go where politicians could not.

The merger wave is mirrored around the country, driven by the shifting economic landscape in health care and the looming changes in federal regulation. Previous Catholic takeovers in Kentucky, Illinois and Pennsylvania have made news and drawn scrutiny.

The CHA has a long history of providing health care for the Americans who need it, particularly those in rural areas without much access to services. Catholic social teaching promotes caring for the poor and serving the underserved, and the Catholic hospital administrators in Washington say that denying them the ability to expand their practice would effectively threaten health care services to millions of Americans in the state who would have nowhere else to turn. “The Catholic health system is in many of the communities we’re in because other health care providers have not wanted to serve those communities and have not had a commitment to serve every human being,” Peter Adler, a senior vice president a Catholic hospital system based in the Pacific Northwest, told the New York Times.


But for the Americans who support abortion rights, “serving every human being” includes providing reproductive health care to the women who need it. And recent hospital mergers have resulted in halting abortion care — even when doctors were under the impression that merging wouldn’t prevent them from continuing to perform abortions. That’s especially concerning in Washington — since, if all the proposed mergers go through, almost half of the hospital beds in the state would be controlled by Catholic hospitals.

There is already an increasing shortage of abortion providers, and abortion clinics are being forced to close across the country as anti-choice lawmakers advance stringent legislation intended to target them. If the health care sector continues to deal with financial pressure by merging secular hospitals with Catholic institutions, women across the United States will have even fewer places to turn to receive reproductive care — even if they didn’t cast their ballot for that position.