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Jane Ahlin, Published February 13 2011

Ahlin: If religion stymies medicine, there will be consequences

Legislation is best understood by its consequences. For instance, say a mother of four, pregnant with her fifth child, develops pulmonary hypertension, and by the time she gets to the hospital, her life is on the line. In addition to “severe, life-threatening pulmonary hypertension,” she has “right heart failure” and “cardiogenic shock.”

Doctors know that unless the fetus is removed, she will die. But the fetus is only 11 weeks, far from viable outside the womb, and, in fact, medical personnel have determined the fetus already is dying because of the woman’s medical problems.

What should medical personnel do?

If you follow the news, you know this case isn’t hypothetical. It happened in Phoenix in 2009. A mother of four was admitted to St. Joseph’s – a Catholic hospital at that time – and in order to save the mother’s life, the placenta was removed, effectively ending fetal life. The mother got well and went home to her four children.

However, the Catholic bishop for the area saw the hospital’s action as “directly kill(ing) … a “healthy, 11-week-old baby.” The nun in charge, Sister Margaret McBride, was excommunicated and the hospital lost its Catholic designation. Later, another nun, Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association which includes more than 600 hospitals, affirmed that St. Joseph’s had acted appropriately, but that carried no weight with the church. The bishop had the say.

That recent case really is the background for ugly national legislation called – oddly – the “Protect Life Act,” put forth by Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa. Were this provision made into law, doctors and hospitals could refuse to perform abortions for any reason, including saving a woman’s life. In fact, those medical professionals refusing would not even have to transfer women to facilities where they could get life-saving abortions. Indeed, the provision would negate the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, which is current federal law and requires life-saving actions by medical personnel.

To put that into perspective, let’s imagine a nighttime car accident where a bishop driving one car collides with a car being driven by a pregnant woman. Both have life-threatening injuries and are bleeding profusely. Ambulance crews take the woman to a Catholic hospital where she is refused life-saving measures because the measures will result in the death of the fetus. The bishop is taken to a non-denominational hospital where the only lab person on duty is a Jehovah’s Witness whose religion doesn’t allow cross-matching blood.

In both cases, religious belief stands in the way of life-saving medical care. However, in a society not ruled by the edicts of any religion, neither is morally or ethically acceptable.

Unfortunately, the Pitts bill is not the only irrational piece of anti-abortion legislation. In

HR 3, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., added the word “forcible” to the longstanding Hyde abortion exemption for rape, a contemptible addition that Smith has since agreed to remove – but hasn’t yet. (For instance, a mentally disabled woman who was raped could not get an abortion unless she could prove force. No matter, 150 Republican legislators have their names on the bill as is with the “forcible rape” clause.)

The basic aim of HR 3, also called the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” is to make it impossible for businesses to carry employee insurance plans that offer abortion coverage by taking away the tax benefits they get for offering health insurance. As already pointed out by others, this bill utterly changes the concept of tax credits by equating them with government subsidies. In effect, this bill says that allowing a business to keep more of its own money by paying less in tax will mean the government is subsidizing its insurance package.

And yet, if tax breaks are government subsidies, then government now and for an awfully long time has been subsidizing religion because churches lead the pack in tax breaks. (Oh, oh, subsidizing religion is unconstitutional.)

In all these bills, ideology masquerades as legislation. Forget jobs creation and the economy. This Congress is out to make every womb a ward of the state.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.