Christian influence permeates our health system. Religiously affiliated hospitals—there are hundreds–accounted for 13% of all hospitals and 18% of all hospital beds in the U.S. in 2002. Nearly three quarters were Roman Catholic. Aside for a handful which were Jewish or Muslim affiliated, the rest were associated with other Christian denominations such as the Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians.
There is nothing inherently wrong with religiously affiliated institutions providing medical services (although a comprehensive national health care plan would eliminate most of the need for those services). Problems arise, however, when those institutions dictate the terms and conditions of medical service based on religious beliefs.
According to a recent report there are 624 Catholic hospitals, 373 other Catholic health-care institutions including 11 of the 40 largest in the country, and hundreds of nursing homes. Two million people are enrolled in the 48 Catholic managed-care plans. In many states, 30 to 40 percent of people who need emergency care visit a Catholic hospital. In 2008, more than 90 million patients were treated at Catholic health-care facilities in the U.S. Many of these hospitals do not offer birth control, sterilizations, abortions, infertility services, comprehensive HIV/AIDS prevention information (such as “safer sex” counseling about use of condoms) and some limit patients’ end-of-life choices.
The impact of the Catholic Church is not limited to its control of health care institutions. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has been very active in the current debates over health care in Congress. Representing the religious leaders of the 195-plus Catholic dioceses in the U.S., with an annual budget of close to $150 million dollars and a staff of more than 300, the Conference is not a small player in the national arena. Its staff had direct talks with key political leaders such as President Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and put intense pressure on many congressional members to support the anti-abortion Stupak/Pitts* amendment to the health care bill. They threatened to sabotage the entire bill if the amendment was not passed, and asked priests across the country to urge Catholics to lobby their representatives. Some even distributed flyers in church to that effect. Their efforts had an impact: they were able to hold the bill hostage so that restrictive anti-choice language was incorporated into the final Senate health care bill. We will soon know how effective their efforts have been in determining the final outcome in Congress.
Christian hegemony operates through powerful Christian organizations, influential leaders, and popular support. In the case of the Stupak/Pitts amendment, polls showed that most Catholics did not think the church should use the issue of abortion to undermine the possibility of a national health care bill. Large numbers disagree with the Bishops and support health-insurance coverage for abortions. Even without popular support the power of organized Christian leadership is clear.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was not the only Christian organization lobbying for anti-abortion clauses in the health care debate, only the most visible. Abortion is not the only health care issue influenced by powerful Christian organizations and their leaders. But this issue and this organization are good examples of how Christian dominance influences our basic choices about a range of health care issues from the availability of contraception and abortions to end of life choices—from birth to death.
*Representative Bart Stupak (D-Michigan) and Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pennsylvania) are both members of another powerful Christian organization called The Family.