The XX Factor

Is This Catholic Hospital in Oklahoma Trying to Prevent Women From Getting Birth Control?

When religion collides with medical ethics, medical ethics should prevail.

Photo by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Are the majority of gynecological patients in the small city of Bartlesville, Okla., about to be cut off from access to prescription contraception? That seems to be the conclusion of the local newspaper, the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise, which reported on Friday that, according to off-the-record sources, at a Wednesday meeting management at the Jane Phillips Medical Center told doctors affiliated with the hospital that they could no longer prescribe birth control. There is only one OB-GYN in town who does not work with the hospital.

Since the Examiner-Enterprise story, St. John Health System—which owns Jane Phillips and was recently acquired by a Catholic medical group called Ascension Health—has issued a denial of sorts, but one that leaves open many questions:

Consistent with Catholic health care organizations, St. John Health System operates in accordance with the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, and therefore does not approve or support contraceptive practices. However, only physicians (not institutions) are licensed to practice medicine and make medical judgments. While our physicians agree to abide by the Directives, they also have the ability to prescribe medications, including hormonal medications, in accordance with their independent professional medical judgment. This includes informing patients when they are operating under their own professional medical judgment and not on behalf of St. John Health System.

The statement is elliptical and confusing, with no clarification about what counts as “independent” and what can be considered “on behalf of St. John Health System.” I reached out to a representative of St. John for clarification of this policy, but St. John declined to clarify any further, nor would they confirm or deny that there was a meeting on Wednesday to tell doctors not to prescribe contraception. 

The most flexible reading of the statement suggests that doctors will be given free rein if they are in their private offices but will not be allowed to prescribe contraception if they are within the walls of the Jane Phillips Medical Center. Even if this is the case, it’s still a problem. The single doctor in the area not affiliated with the hospital, Dr. Robert Oliver, spoke to Fox News 23 about the situation, pointing out that a great deal of contraception counseling occurs in a hospital setting.

There is no need for all this confusion. The broad medical consensus based on actual science and evidence is that contraception is a necessary part of women’s health care. The American Medical Association affirms, in its ethical guidelines, “policies supporting responsibility to the patient as paramount in all situations and the principle of access to medical care for all people.” The problem here is that Catholic organizations like St. John want to compromise that straightforward principle by injecting bewildering policies that replace sound medical judgment with a bunch of rules concocted by theologians. It’s all good and well to have private beliefs about the sinfulness of contraception, but for the sake of clarity and patient protection, those in the business of providing health care should abide by standard medical ethics. And those ethics include making contraception simple for patients to get, not putting a bunch of confusing obstacles out there for patients and doctors to navigate.