Montgomery County, Maryland, lying just to the northwest of Washington, DC, is one of the richest counties in the nation. Its previously rural northern half has exploded with exurban sprawl in recent years, so much so that state authorities recently concluded it’s time for the region to have a new hospital – the first new county hospital in the past thirty years.
Hospital economics are such that one can’t simply up and build a new one; one has to get a “certificate of need” first, to assure adequate capital and quality. Two principal competitors for the precious certificate emerged. One, an Adventist institution which already has a longtime presence in the southern portion of the county, would provide a complete array of medical services. The other, which also has a longtime presence down-county, would provide a range of services limited by the theology of its sponsor, the Catholic Church.
Guess who won? Hint: there are way more Catholics than Adventists in Maryland.
I have no hard evidence that politics played an improper role in the decision of the commission awarding the $202 million project to the Catholic bidder. Certainly, the Adventist bid had politicians on its side – in fact, 12 state legislators representing the area publicly supported the Adventists. I do know, though, that the new Catholic hospital will refuse to provide tubal ligation, hormonal contraception services, and many kinds of fertility treatment, because the Catholic Church says God is against all that. If a pregnant woman in the Catholic hospital suffers from life-threatening complications, its management will let her die rather than perform an abortion, even if it is certain that her fetus is doomed as well. Men seeking vasectomies will also have to look elsewhere.
This is not just speculation. The Washington Post reported that:
In Texas, a Catholic bishop made two hospitals cease doing tube-tying operations for women who are not going to have more babies. In Oregon, another bishop cast a medical center out of his diocese for refusing to discontinue the same procedure. In Arizona, a nun was excommunicated and the hospital where she works was expelled from the church after 116 years for allowing doctors to terminate a pregnancy to save a woman’s life.
Are those just isolated instances, unlikely to be repeated? Nope. The Arizona case, which I wrote about last May, was reviewed and commended by a bishops’ committee chaired by Archbishop Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington itself, where the new hospital will be located. Wuerl was then promptly made a Cardinal.
What about vaccination? When vaccination for smallpox was developed in the 18th century, the Catholic theologians of the Sorbonne pondered it at length, then pronounced it sinful. God sends smallpox to punish the wicked, they reasoned, and man would be presumptuous to interfere. Smallpox vaccination was flatly prohibited in the territories of central Italy controlled by the Pope until he was deposed from the temporal power in 1870. As late as 1885, when a smallpox epidemic broke out in Montreal, the Protestant community was largely spared because it was vaccinated. But the Catholic population was decimated, because the priests insisted that vaccination was sinful. Abbé Filiatrault declared that “If we are afflicted with smallpox, it is because we had a carnival last winter, feasting the flesh, which has offended the Lord; . . . it is to punish our pride that God has sent us smallpox.”
Though the Church grudgingly came around on smallpox vaccination, today quite a few Catholic God experts oppose a new vaccine that reduces women’s risk of contracting cervical cancer, a sexually transmitted disease. Cancer is seen as one of God’s punishments for committing sex; reducing that risk might result in more sex, a victory for the devil. I have no idea whether the cervical cancer vaccine will be banned at the new hospital or not – that’s up to the whim of Cardinal Wuerl.
Catholic hospitals have been inextricably linked with politics for a long time. In mid-20th century Quebec, strongman Maurice Duplessis maintained himself in power for decades by leaning on the Church to provide cut-rate educational and medical services, so that he could devote tax money to infrastructure contractors who gave his party massive kickbacks. The cheap school and hospital services were provided courtesy of thousands of women brainwashed into the belief that living as nuns, on a bare subsistence level, would earn them brownie points in the next world.
In the United States, Catholic hospitals used their economic clout to support the Church’s political agenda. When Massachusetts held a referendum campaign to liberalize the laws against condoms in 1947, the Catholic hospital in Springfield fired four Protestant and two Jewish gynecologists from its staff for favoring a revision in the law. In neighboring Connecticut, six more non-Catholic doctors were fired that year for supporting a bill in the legislature to the same effect.
The Ultimate Catholic Hospital
The most fascinating Catholic hospital of all was the one that operated for many years at Lourdes, the French village where in 1858 an illiterate shepherdess named Bernadette Soubirous claimed she saw visions of the Virgin Mary. The civil authorities in the town did not find her tale credible and sought to downplay it, but orders came down from the Emperor Napoleon himself – then anxious to placate politically powerful Catholics – to throw open the site to all pilgrims who wanted to come.
Soon the little village was inundated with visitors, many of them desperately ill and seeking a miracle cure. The worst cases were sent to the Hospital of Our Lady of Dolours, which was crammed to several times its capacity, with mattresses covering every available inch of floor space. What made this hospital special was that it had no doctors, and no medicine. The Church was intent on proving that the waters of Lourdes worked miracle cures, and with scientific rigor sought to exclude all possible alternative explanations for patients who left the village in better shape than they arrived.
Émile Zola’s 1894 novel Lourdes paints a vivid picture of the Hospital of Our Lady of Dolours, of the baths where patients lined up to be immersed in the same holy water where the microbes of hundreds of other sufferers had been rinsed off earlier in the day, and of the “Verification Office” where the doctors who were not tending the sick debated the merits of individual claims of cure. Though Zola was a strong secularist, he did not dispute that something unusual was in fact occurring at Lourdes, at least in a small minority of cases.
Forces as yet but imperfectly studied, of which one was even ignorant, were certainly at work – autosuggestion, long prepared disturbance of the nerves; the inspiriting influence of the journey, the prayers, and the hymns; and especially the healing breath, the unknown force which was evolved from the multitude, in the acute crisis of faith. Thus it seemed to him anything but intelligent to believe in trickery. The facts were both of a much more lofty and much more simple nature. … The desire to be healed did heal; the thirst for a miracle worked the miracle.
Studies today confirm Zola’s insight; placebos actually work, a startling percentage of the time.
If the new Montgomery County Catholic hospital survives a likely court challenge, it will have doctors and medicines. Indeed, the down-county hospital it is affiliated with has an excellent reputation, at least for the limited range of services it provides. But aside from the shabby treatment of women, there is the huge looming problem with government allowing the proliferation of Catholic hospitals where a plausible alternative exists.
Suppose that in some civilized country where the Christian right doesn’t micromanage government funding of medical research, they figure out a way to use embryonic stem cells to start treating all kinds of conditions, from paralysis to blindness. Stem cells have the potential, according to some, to revolutionize the entire practice of medicine. But will such stem cell therapies be available in a Catholic hospital? The answer will be up to the changeable whim of the future Catholic hierarchy; from the virulence of their rhetoric against embryonic stem cell research to date, though, it appears likely that the answer will be “No.” Up-county residents will have to go elsewhere for their treatment – defeating the whole purpose of building a new hospital there in the first place. Why, other than sheer power politics, would a government sanction this?