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Vatican orders Arkansas hospital to stop sterilizations

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has instructed Bishop Andrew J. McDonald of Little Rock, Ark., to withdraw his approval of sterilizations performed at St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center. The state’s largest hospital is operated by St. Vincent Health System, owned by Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives.

Scott Mosley, Vice President for Corporate Development for St. Vincent Health System, said that dismantling the sterilization unit will take six months. “We have a contractual stipulation in our lease agreement that provides for a 180-day period during which we will dissolve the arrangement” with Arkansas Women’s Health Center, he said.

The sterilizations began in June 1998, four months after St. Vincent purchased Doctors Hospital, a non-religious institution located across the street. Prior to the purchase, physicians at the hospital had performed abortions and tubal ligations, procedures in which women’s fallopian tubes are tied or severed to prevent fertilization. After the acquisition of Doctors Hospital, St. Vincent ordered a halt to abortion services but allowed sterilizations to continue in a room across the hall from the obstetrics ward. The room at the new St. Vincent Doctors Hospital was leased by Arkansas Women’s Health Center, which pays rent to St. Vincent along with a set fee for each sterilization to compensate the hospital for supplies used.

At the time, the sterilization unit was seen as a way of remaining competitive in a marketplace increasingly controlled by managed care companies pressuring hospitals to provide such services. But last June, when St. Vincent was making final arrangements to provide sterilizations, Pope John Paul II told McDonald and other U.S. bishops visiting in Rome that permitting sterilizations is a “grievous sin and source of scandal” to the church.

The Women’s Health Center opened the unit in the hospital July 1 of that year. At the time, McDonald’s approval provoked intense criticism from Catholics across the Little Rock, Ark., diocese who questioned the apparent compromise of church teaching as well as the double standard it created. Hospital spokespersons said the action was based on 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. The source of duress was managed care; the greater good was the hospital’s financial health.

When the sterilization unit opened, 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. Since then, other Catholic hospitals have made similar arrangements for outside agencies to perform sterilizations in or near Catholic institutions. The current Vatican ruling, however, is addressed only to St. Vincent.

“We’re working directly with our physicians and managed care partners to find ways to get these services to individuals without the hospital’s involvement,” Mosley said. “It’s an issue of convenience. It means a second procedure at another facility. But we’re hopeful that our physicians will continue to use us for deliveries.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 1999