The nation's Roman Catholic bishops voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to pursue revising directives that guide how Catholic health systems merge, acquire or partner with non-Catholic healthcare providers. While the decision's implications for future such partnerships is unclear, the vote has raised concerns for some.
“Catholic healthcare delivery is already challenging in some respects in the United States in that the Catholic health directives restrict the facilities from providing certain care,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Anything that tightens the nature of the agreement such that Catholic healthcare facilities would have to impose those requirements on others, including those that they just partner with, continues to increase the threat of access for women to reproductive health services throughout the country.”
Catholic doctrine forbids abortion, sterilization, in vitro fertilization and artificial means of birth control.
Some Catholic systems have managed to work around the directives to date by creating partnerships with secular organizations that provide greater flexibility in terms of the services they choose to provide. It is not certain at this point how a revised version of the directives will affect current relationships between Catholic and non-Catholic health systems or the potential for future dealings.
Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted 213-2 at their fall general assembly in Baltimore in favor of including 17 principles sent to the body in February from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the institutional arm of the church charged with defending doctrines of Catholic faith.
The principles would be added to Part Six of the bishops' Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (PDF) entitled “Forming New Partnerships with Health Care Organizations and Providers”.
The directives provide moral guidance to bishops who oversee transactions involving Catholic healthcare systems located within their dioceses.
The Vatican's principles address ways bishops can “ensure that Catholic healthcare institutions neither cooperate immorally with the unacceptable procedures conducted in other healthcare entities with which they may be connected nor cause scandal as a result of their collaboration with such other entities.”
Exactly how the principles would be applied so that they could aid bishops when considering all of the factors that come into play when deciding whether or not to approve a potential partnership between a Catholic and a non-Catholic health system seemed unclear, even among some of the proposal's supporters.
“I think we should get help on how to understand cooperation and how this works, especially with regard to healthcare systems,” said Rev. Thomas Olmsted, bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix, during the meeting. “I think it's going to be important to revise them (Directives) but I also think it would be helpful to have assistance for us to understand and for those involved in healthcare to understand how cooperation works.”
The proposal will now go to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Doctrine, which will draft a revised version of the directives for bishops to consider at a later meeting. Olmsted suggested holding a workshop for bishops on the directives prior to that meeting.
Catholic partnerships with secular healthcare providers have been on the rise over the last decade, but have been under scrutiny by some over concerns about the restrictions put on some medical services, such as abortion, sterilization and in vitro fertilization, that are prohibited by the Catholic directives.
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