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Catholic healthcare faces big issues

Health Care Reform Dilemma Among Urgent Issues Facing Catholic Healthcare

Catholic health organizations advocate for healthcare reform as a matter of social justice. However, some reforms could lead to an expanded role for government that would further erode the autonomy of Catholic hospitals–especially if a plan mandates that contraception, sterilization, abortion or abortion referrals be provided at all hospitals regardless of religious affiliation.

This is just one of the issues examined in Diagnosis Critical: The Urgent Threats Confronting Catholic Healthcare (Our Sunday Visitor, June 2009) by healthcare law expert Leonard J. Nelson III, professor at the Cumberland School of Law of Samford University.

Catholic facilities face increased pressure as they seek to maintain their tax-exempt status and eligibility for federal funding. Pending legislation, such as the Freedom of Choice Act, could mean that Catholic medical centers may be forced to shut down, or to provide services deemed morally wrong by the Church. Tens of thousands of Catholic doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals could be forced to quit their jobs or violate their religious beliefs.

The continued existence of Catholic healthcare in the U.S. requires legal protection–“conscience clauses”–for institutions and individuals who refuse to provide such services, says Nelson. “We are already seeing an erosion of conscience protection with regard to pharmacists who object to dispensing Plan B.”

Other challenges facing Catholic healthcare include:

•threats posed to Catholic hospitals if legislation such as the Freedom of Choice Act or Prevention First are passed, particularly if they override current conscience protection clauses;
•the difficulties Catholic hospitals face in an increasingly competitive marketplace and in a society permeated by the sexual revolution and the “culture of death”;
•end-of-life issues such as the controversy over withdrawing assisted nutrition and hydration from patients in persistent vegetative states such as in the Terri Schiavo case.

Catholic healthcare providers may have to focus their efforts on creating alternatives to acute care hospitals, such as free clinics, specialized centers for reproductive medicine, and hospices for end-of-life care, Nelson concludes. These initiatives could reinvigorate the religious healthcare ministry, he says, allowing a full embrace of the primary role of Catholic health care: providing support for the culture of life and evangelizing the secular culture.

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