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Catholic hospitals at sea.

Ontario's hospital reforms, involving the closing of many hospitals, have been so controversial and contentious that it is said Health Minister Jim Wilson has had to employ a body guard. As for Catholic hospitals, some are having to close; some will stay open, and, when one of these is allowed to remain open whereas a hospital in the same community which has no religious affiliation is being forced to close, the result is a display of hostility and bigotry of a sort one thought belonged to a by-gone era.

A neighbour of ours, a Jew, wanted to go to St. Michael's Hospital, Toronto, when he was terminally ill, because he knew he could get good care there. Catholic hospitals have often enjoyed such a reputation, particularly because of the work of devoted congregations of nuns who were in charge of them. With the decline of religious vocations, they may be becoming like all the rest. And they may be losing the religious emphasis which was the basis for their distinctiveness.


The Pembroke Civic Hospital is supposed to close, and the Pembroke General Hospital, run by the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, is to stay open. The latter was chosen because it is larger and because it has actually been running a surplus. But many Pembroke residents argue that their freedom of religion, or freedom to be free of religion, is being violated. They have hired a prominent feminist Toronto lawyer, Mary Eberts, to plead their case. As one Pembroke lady put it, "I really took exception to the fact that a few cloistered women were going to determine my health care."

Rumours abound about what will happen when the only hospital in town is operated by Catholics. The General won't give a rape victim a morning-after pill to prevent pregnancy, will it? It won't be allowed to perform vasectomies and hysterectomies. A woman with a problem pregnancy will likely have to wait while an ethics committee reviews her case. And Catholic doctrine will be shoved down the throats of non-Catholic patients; aren't the walls of the hospitals lined with statues?

Catholic compromise

Sister Marguerite Hennessy, president of the Grey Sisters Health systems, points out that all these rumours are false. And as she does so, she reveals how far her hospital has departed from its Catholic mission. Only a handful of nuns actually work at the hospital. There are no statues in the halls; they were removed years ago. Doctors at the hospital will never perform abortions or participate in euthanasia. But the General has long allowed vasectomies and hysterectomies, and no emergency procedure is delayed by the ethics board. And the morning-after pill can be found in all sexual assault kits!!

All of this is directly against Catholic moral teaching and a needless and mistaken surrender which will not satisfy the seculars. As far away critic Michelle Landsberg of the Toronto Star put it in her June 9 column: what about abortions which "are legal" . . . "Slippery language cannot disguise the arbitrary rules that the Grey Nuns will impose on Pembroke women."

Secular fear-mongering

In her argument before Ontario's Divisional Court at the end July, Miss Eberts played on all the fears non-religious people have about Catholics, except perhaps that the non-Catholics will be murdered in their beds. She maintained that leaving only denominational hospitals in the community will violate the religious freedom of non-Catholics, and that the decision discriminates against women, because the hospital will not provide them with some legally sanctioned procedures such as abortions, contraception, and sterilization. The Grey Sisters are appalled at the amount of bitterness which the hospital situation has produced -- bewildered that a century of devoted service to the community should meet such a display of bigotry.

Sault Ste Marie/Thunder Bay

Meanwhile in other towns the closing of Catholic hospitals has produced different kinds of problems. The consolidation of operating rooms in Sault Ste. Marie resulted in the adoption of a principled working rule:

"Regardless of where the consolidated O.R. may be located, the Hospital shall make a reasonable effort to accommodate a nurse's religious beliefs. Notwithstanding the above, any nurse presently working in the O.R. at the Sault Ste. Marie General Hospital shall not be required to assist with any procedure that is not consistent with the philosophy of the Catholic Church."

Bishop Frederick Henry of Thunder Bay, who quoted this guideline, pointed out that a similar agreement was reached in Peterborough. But in his own community, he found that nurses transferred from St. Joseph's Hospital to Thunder Bay Regional Hospital because of restructuring were being compelled to participate in abortions and were afraid to let their disapproval be known for fear they might be fired. Nurses at other hospitals elsewhere in Ontario, such as, for example, Mount Sinai in Toronto, are having the same experience.

This situation points up one obvious need in Canada -- a conscience clause for professionals who are aware that human life is inviolable and do not want to assist in its destruction. And, similarly, a conscience clause for institutions is needed for the same reasons. This is a kind of freedom which Miss Eberts probably never thinks of.
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Author:Dooley, David
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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