Archived Story

A public service means serving the public

Published 10:17am Friday, February 24, 2012

Column: Notes from Home


Several years ago, my cousin started having a miscarriage while fixing supper for her family. She was a nurse and her husband a surgeon, and both quickly realized what was happening; because of the amount of blood, they knew she had lost the baby. Their priority became saving my cousin’s life.

They took off for the hospital, leaving a neighbor with their other kids. The husband drove, but was also on his phone, calling ahead to the closest hospital. Partway there, he made a u-turn, and headed in the opposite direction, to a hospital that was farther away.

Why did he turn around? Why did they spend an extra half hour in a car and an extra night in the hospital because of blood loss? Because the first hospital was run by Roman-Catholics. Nobody there knew the techniques used in treating this type of miscarriage. They didn’t even have the tools needed, because they could also be used for abortions.

This memory frames my disappointment at the recent noise being made by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. They don’t want to supply their non-Catholic employees with the choice of birth control. I have to assume they feel the same way about contraception for patients, because they claim that the hospitals and clinics run by Roman-Catholics are religious, not public institutions, and therefore protected by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.

Common sense observation: A hospital is not a church. People go to hospitals when their bodies break or turn on them with cancer. They expect the people who work there to be qualified to provide medical care, not spiritual care. People don’t seek out clinics if their broken souls need confession, communion or baptism; real churches are where people find those things.

Luckily for my cousin, and her other children, there was a hospital that did have staff trained and had the correct tools. But what about those who live in communities where the only hospital is Roman-Catholic, one that won’t invest in techniques and tools that could save a woman’s life? What if the only clinic in town won’t provide information about contraceptives or prescribe any when asked? What if the pharmacist won’t fill prescriptions for pills or sell condoms?

A merger last year involving the hospitals and clinics in Louisville, Ky., would have brought all of them under the control of a Roman Catholic health care provider based out of Colorado. One of the medical providers — University of Louisville — pulled out because the new “controllers” of medical care made it clear that medical decisions — including decisions about family planning services — were going to have to comply with the rules of the church.

Hospitals in this country operate in the public interest. That means they serve the public, not just selected members of the public, like only the rich or only particular ethnic groups or only Christians from a particular denomination.

At a medical facility, a patient’s health needs to come first, and while I believe spirituality is important in healing, the patient’s beliefs about God and the afterlife — and family planning and contraception — matter, too, not just the providers. If hiring the best possible medical staff (regardless of their religious identity) in order to serve the health needs of the whole community makes the Roman-Catholic hierarchy uncomfortable, then they should get out of the medical services industry. While I think a lot would be lost if they abandoned the role they’ve played in providing medical care, it’s not fair to impose their doctrines on people who do not worship God the way they do.

When I write about difficult subjects, like this one, I don’t always realize I’m going to offend people — until afterward. But this week, I’m pretty sure I will make some people uncomfortable, including friends. I do not casually or naively bring up this topic, and I wouldn’t, if I saw any other way to do anything about it.

If the church hierarchy uses pulpits and organizing committees in parishes to play a political role, then they can’t hide behind the cross and say “no fair” when they are criticized. Criticism of anybody’s manipulation of faith to get their way in an election is both legitimate and responsible.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.