Catholic Healthcare Is Concerned With Both Mother and Child

Inspired by the way Jesus reached out to the sick and healed them, Catholic hospitals make extraordinary efforts to bring healing and care to all their patients

Mother and Child
Mother and Child (photo: Natalia Deriabina /

The author of a recent op-ed in The Kansas City Star describes a deeply personal and difficult story from 2009. Her son was delivered at 21 weeks, and his life could not be saved because of his prematurity. While we will never know the full details of her medical situation that day, her experience cuts to the very heart of the pain and heartache of child loss and fears for one’s own safety. As a physician and father, my heart truly goes out to her.

The author takes a shot at the Catholic hospital that offered her care, and she criticizes the ethics that inform the Catholic approach to medicine — ethics that at their foundation, promote care for the well-being of both mother and child. Catholic health care provides the best quality and outcomes for women in America. As President of the Catholic Health Care Leadership Alliance (CHCLA), I must oppose this author’s misunderstanding of Catholic ethics. The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERDs) uphold human dignity from conception to natural death for every patient.

The ERDs are issued in the U.S. to guide the ethical practice of medicine based in the moral tradition of the Catholic Church. These principles include the understanding that one can never intend and act to directly kill another human being. Abortion is a very grave violation of the moral law and medical ethics that is not permitted. In the case of medical complications during pregnancy, the opinion piece implies that Catholic ethics tie the hands of health professionals and prevent them from providing necessary care in the best interest of the mother. This is not true. The ERDs protect the human dignity of all involved, including the dignity of mother and baby alike (ERDs 47-49).

Catholic medical professionals and their pregnant patients are called to carefully discern, using the ethical framework of the principle of double effect, the interventions that may be performed to protect her life even if the unintended but foreseen consequence is the tragedy of not being able to save the life of her child (ERD 47). It is sadly true that we cannot prevent the deaths of some patients, but doctors take an oath to practice the art of healing and not participating in killing.

What makes Catholic health care distinctive from secular care shines forth in exactly these difficult moments. Catholic health care strives to promote the human dignity of each and every patient, care for the poor, and to contribute to the common good. Women deserve to receive compassionate health care in complex medical situations, as do their preborn children. Who would not prefer to have a doctor who does everything possible to save both the pregnant mother and her child rather than one who automatically rushes to sacrifice the child and inflict the trauma of an abortion on them both, an attitude that characterizes so much of secular medicine? Fundamentally, how many people are really comfortable placing their care and lives in the hands of a physician who heals some patients and kills others?

Inspired by the way Jesus reached out to the sick and healed them, Catholic hospitals make extraordinary efforts to bring healing and care to all their patients. Is this not what human rights are all about — refusing to commit injustice against some patients in favor of others? It is also a deep human rights issue and ethical framework to never discriminate against the most vulnerable in order to serve the more powerful.

It is truly tragic that the author experienced child loss and trauma during childbirth. Monitoring a mother’s health and offering medicine to lessen her pain, while not acting directly against her child to hasten his death, is deeply in accordance with Catholic ethics and concern for both patients. Catholic hospitals are in the business of serving and loving them both. Serving both patients is the truly compassionate way to care. Our prayers are with her in her profound loss that is still painful many years later. May she find peace and healing in the hands of our Divine Healer, Jesus Christ.

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