May 2007 - Volume 11, Issue 10

Religious Freedom In The Constitution State

By The Most Reverend William E. Lori, S.T.D., Bishop Of Bridgeport

Photo of a pregnant woman's silloute with the sun behind herI've visited the Emergency Room of St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport (the only Catholic hospital in Fairfield County) on many occasions. It is a place of compassionate care. Many, who have no where else to turn, trust St. Vincent's for competent medical treatment. It is consistently delivered by health care professionals who share an institutional faith-based commitment to the dignity of every person. Last year, St. Vincent's provided nearly $35.1 million in uncompensated care to the poor and the uninsured - and this in a State where Medicaid compensation is about 70 cents on the dollar.

About 50 to 60 victims of sexual assault are served at St. Vincent's annually. They receive respect, kindness, and compassionate care that includes listening to their stories, counseling, and the administration of a powerful contraceptive known as "Plan B." The Catholic Church, which opposes contraception under normal circumstances, allows it in the tragic and gravely unjust case of a sexual assault.

Like all hospitals, Catholic hospitals administer a pregnancy test prior to giving the Plan B medication. Our Catholic hospitals in Connecticut also administer (in one and the same procedure) an ovulation test. In the case of a just-fertilized ovum, the Plan B medication functions not as a contraceptive but as an abortifacient by preventing the implantation of the fertilized ovum in the wall of the uterus. In other words, our Catholic hospitals, because of their respect for all human life, will not risk inducing an early abortion.

But the risk is remote. To my knowledge, no Catholic hospital in Connecticut has ever denied an assault victim Plan B - a medication that can be readily obtained over-the-counter. In addition to providing this medication, Catholic hospitals reach out to assault victims and their families with counseling, spiritual guidance, and many other forms of assistance. St. Vincent's brings to this ministry the special gentleness and love for the poor that characterized its patron, Saint Vincent de Paul.

As of this writing, however, the long arm of the law is about to reach into our Catholic hospitals to stay their hand.

Under legislation which seems likely to be passed by the Connecticut General Assembly in the next few days, the four Catholic hospitals in our State will be forbidden to administer the ovulation test. In spite of their record of compassionate care, Catholic hospitals in Connecticut will be legally restrained from learning information about a group of patients they have always served so well. For that matter, this legislation will deny to the patient herself information about her own body that she may wish to know, thus hindering informed consent.

Physicians and other health care professionals now face the prospect of the State of Connecticut's preventing them from performing a specific medical test; they are about to be commanded to know less, not more, about their patients. And the principle of religious liberty - acknowledged and guaranteed by both the Federal and Connecticut Constitutions - is about to be trampled as the State runs rough-shod over the ethical standards that our Catholic hospitals have a God-given right to maintain. So, with the stroke of a pen, the Legislature is poised to deny individual freedom, provider freedom, and religious freedom here in the Constitution State.

There was no clamor for this from victims or from the general electorate. Rather, the clamor was generated by an intense pro-abortion lobby known as "The Abortion Access Project" from Massachusetts, where the Legislature enacted a similarly draconian measure last year. The Abortion Access Project has successfully created a political firestorm in Connecticut. Even knowing that no victim has been denied treatment, proponents of this bill are coming down hard on institutions of service and charity that they should be fostering, and this is under way because our Catholic hospitals are determined to maintain their ethical standards.

Supporters of this legislation cite a difference in opinion and practice in Catholic hospitals in other states. The question of the need for the more accurate information, currently provided by the ovulation test, has not been definitively settled by the Church's teaching authority. Thus, some Catholic hospitals in other locales administer only the pregnancy test, not the ovulation test.

The Connecticut bishops consulted several highly competent medical-moral theologians from different organizations. These consultants were clear that, in requiring the ovulation test, we bishops are following the more probable teaching. Further, it is likely that the question of the need to obtain the more precise information provided by a procedure such as the ovulation test will eventually be settled by the Church's teaching authority - just as various open questions concerning faith and morals have been settled in the Church's 2,000- year history.

In the meantime, this supposed "crack-in-the wall" in Catholic teaching and practice is being used as an excuse to force the hand of the Connecticut Bishops and the State's four Catholic hospitals.

Ask yourself: Do you think the Legislature should settle doctrinal questions in the Catholic Church or any other church? Should our lawmakers in Connecticut be bound by civil laws and policies in states which differ vastly from our own? Why is legitimate diversity in the Church being used as a wedge?

Some advocates for this misguided legislation will also tell you that the Church in Connecticut reneged on its promise to deliver a so-called "Third Party Solution" for the yet-to-occur case of a victim to whom Plan B cannot be ethically administered.

Please take another look. The Church did suggest a third-party procedure that would have respected the rights of all. It called for the State to make arrangements for sexual assault victims to obtain the Plan B medication at home or in another convenient place but not on the premises of the hospital where the medical and nursing staff would have to become formally involved. The third-party procedure initially proposed by the Church was rejected by advocates of Plan B legislation.

To repeat: Catholic hospitals do provide emergency contraception when the medication in question acts truly as a contraceptive by preventing ovulation. Catholic hospitals would not provide Plan B only in the case when this medication would induce an early abortion. In practice, Plan B has never been denied a victim who needed it.

If the religious liberty of a Catholic hospital can be violated on this issue, what's next? Will the law insist that Catholic hospitals further violate their ethical standards by performing second trimester abortions? Or will the law someday force Catholic hospitals to euthanize those deemed not fit to live?

Two basic principles are being violated by the current Plan B legislation: respect for human life at all stages, and religious liberty. This is a long road without a turning.

Please contact your legislator before it is too late.

Thank you.