By Amy Littlefield
There’s a single hospital in Bellingham, a picturesque coastal city 20 miles from the Canadian border in Washington. So when a Bellingham mental health counselor named Alison started bleeding three months into her pregnancy in 2013, PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center was her only option.
Alison had first gone to her OB-GYN’s private practice, where her doctor, C. Shayne Mora, diagnosed her with a possible case of placenta previa, a serious condition where the placenta blocks the cervix. He told her to go to the hospital if she started bleeding again. When that happened the next day, Alison went to the St. Joseph emergency room. After an ultrasound showed the fetus was viable, the hospital discharged her. Providers recorded a clinical impression of “threatened abortion,” meaning Alison was at risk of miscarrying. They told her to return if she bled more heavily or ran a fever.
Alison, who asked us to withhold her last name for professional reasons, had never thought much about the fact that St. Joseph is part of PeaceHealth, a Catholic system that runs ten hospitals across Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. Catholic facilities, which make up a growing swath of the health-care landscape, follow rules written by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that ban sterilization, abortion, most contraception, and in vitro fertilization. Washington is one of five states where more than 40 percent of acute-care hospital beds are Catholic. That leaves many patients like Alison with one option: a hospital where care may be restricted by religion without their knowledge.
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