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Catholic hospitals negotiate to offer sterilization care

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Two Catholic hospitals in the Little Rock, Ark., diocese have come under fire from Catholics and non-Catholics alike for negotiating with outside physician groups to perform sterilizations in the hospitals. The negative public reaction was accompanied by a warning from Pope John Paul II to Bishop Andrew J. McDonald that sterilization is a “grievous sin and a source of scandal” to the church.

Doctors Hospital in Little Rock was a nonreligious institution when it was purchased in February by Catholic Health Initiatives. The new St. Vincent Doctors Hospital has leased space near the labor and delivery ward to a clinic performing tubal ligations, which render women sterile.

Arkansas Women’s Health Center opened in the hospital July 1, and reportedly is paying a set amount per sterilization as rent for the space. St. Vincent Doctors is across the street from St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center, flagship of the largest Catholic health system in the state.

At St. Mary-Rogers Memorial Hospital in Rogers, Ark., a Sisters of Mercy Health System institution staffed by the Dominican Sisters, negotiations are underway for the Rogers Women’s Center to lease the hospital’s obstetrics ward and operate it as a separate entity. Plans there are incomplete, but reportedly the rent will be a fixed amount and not dependent upon the number of procedures performed.

Spokespersons for both hospitals have said that pressure from managed care companies to provide the sterilization procedure has forced them to enter joint ventures with other health care providers. Catholics across Arkansas are questioning the apparent compromise of church teaching and the double standard it creates.

The arrangement provides sterilizations for non-Catholic women within the walls of a Catholic hospital while the church bans the procedure for Catholic women. But hospital spokespersons have said the action is based upon the church’s principle of “cooperation,” which allows participation in an act of wrongdoing in times of “duress” if that participation is for the greater good. In this case, the duress is coming from managed care companies, and the greater good is the hospitals’ financial health.

One diocesan priest said the arrangement providing for sterilization in Little Rock was the “lesser of two evils,” because before Doctors Hospital was bought by Catholic Health Initiatives, it provided abortion services.

The bishop approved the St. Mary’s negotiations process and the St. Vincent Doctors contract, but he has refused numerous media requests for comment. A Health System official was reported as saying the hospital’s sterilization lease “wouldn’t be unusual,” but Dr. Paul Byrne of Toledo, Ohio, president of the Catholic Medical Association, said he had never heard of an arrangement like the one in Arkansas.

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998