University of California Regents Advance Proposal to Pressure Hospital Partners’ Catholic Ethics

Pro-abortion and LGBT advocacy groups, which claim Catholic ethics are discriminatory and restrict health care access, have lobbied for changes to the partnerships.

St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco, Calif.
St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco, Calif. (photo: SMMC)

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — The regents of the University of California have advanced a proposal that could end longtime partnerships with Catholic hospitals, as well as with other hospitals whose ethics bar participation in assisted suicide, abortion or transgender-affirmative care.

Backers of Catholic health care, however, emphasized the benefits of the university-hospital partnerships, and the ability of Catholic health systems to provide effective, ethical care to underserved communities and to the state as a whole.

“We work with the University of California system to serve people on MediCal all over the state of California,” Ned Dolejsi, interim executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told CNA June 25.

“We’re located in communities that are important places where the University of California would like to train their physicians and other providers. They want to be partners in doing that,” he said. “We’re proud of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and the consistency with which we’re doing it.”

Pro-abortion and LGBT advocacy groups, which claim Catholic ethics are discriminatory and restrict health care access, have lobbied for changes to the partnerships. Some have even advocated for a policy that would immediately break contracts between the state university and religious hospitals that won’t comply with their demands.

“I’d suggest that not every practice is provided in every hospital everywhere. People should spend a little more time understanding exactly what is provided and what isn’t provided,” Dolejsi said.

The University of California Board of Regents chairman John Perez successfully included an amendment to a proposed policy that would push out University of California-partnered hospitals through “policy-based restrictions” on health care by 2023, the Sacramento Bee reported. 

The policies in question are ethical policies related to prohibitions on abortion procedures, assisted suicide, in vitro fertilization, “gender-affirming care” for self-identified transgender people, and “end of life services,” a euphemism for assisted suicide.

“Our Catholic health care facilities do not participate in assisted suicide in any form,” said Dolejsi. “We provide hospice and palliative care and anything else we view as appropriate at the end of life.”

The proposed changes appear to target the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives, last revised in 2018, which aim to ensure ethical treatment at Catholic hospitals.

Other amendments proposed by Perez say partner hospitals must provide procedures to all people on a non-discriminatory basis, and must provide emergency services when transferring a patient to another facility would be detrimental to them.

It is unclear how broad the non-discrimination proposal will be, but some advocates contend that failure of hospitals to provide abortion discriminates against women, and failure to provide “sex change” surgery discriminates against the self-identified transgender population.

The board of regents approved Perez’s amendments to the proposed policy on June 23. It has 60 days to consider the proposal and make a final determination.

“The university recognizes that such restrictions limit services for women, LBGTQ+ people, and those facing death, and therefore are not aligned with UC values,” said the proposal. “However, affiliations with organizations that have adopted such policies provide thousands of patients with access to (UC health) providers they would not otherwise encounter, thus expanding clinical access, and make available opportunities for critical educational rotations that the university is unable to offer on its own.”

The board will review the proposal over the next 60 days and make a final determination.

University of California president Michael Drake has urged the regents to preserve the hospital partnerships, because they help provide mutual access for University of California Healthcare and people in more rural locations distant from the chain’s medical centers. In Merced, the site of a University of California campus, the Catholic-run Dignity Health system operates the only hospital.

Hospitals that could be affected by the proposal served 35,000 University of California patients in 2019.

“I assume people can always express their views to elected officials, the board of regents, and President Drake’s office,” Dolejsi told CNA. “Certainly they can do that.”

“It’s a discussion that continues, trying to balance what some people see as important issues for certain segments of society with the common good, trying to serve the most people we possibly can and do it in a very effective way.”

The board of regents’ proposal echoes a proposal in the state legislature from State Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco. His Equitable and Inclusive University of California Healthcare Act, S.B. 379, would require the University of California health system to renegotiate agreements with Catholic hospitals. The hospitals would be forced to allow their staff to provide all care deemed medically necessary, or to end their links to the state university medical system.

Co-sponsors of the legislation include the ACLU of California, NARAL Pro-Choice California, and Equality California.

A spokesman for Weiner welcomed the Board of Regents’ proposal, telling the Sacramento Bee this week it was a “positive step forward”

In a May 3 letter to Sen. Anthony Portantino, chair of the state Senate Appropriations Committee, the Alliance of Catholic Health Care made its case against Weiner’s bill. 

Critics of Catholic healthcare have made allegations with “numerous inaccuracies,” the alliance letter said. It stressed that Catholic hospitals’ services are “provided to all, without discrimination.” Resident physicians trained at Catholic hospitals are not arbitrarily assigned, but choose their training.

“Catholic hospitals agree to uphold Catholic values, and therefore we do not provide elective abortion or procedures for the primary purpose of sterilization such as tubal ligations, hysterectomies (when no pathology is present), vasectomies and in-vitro fertilization (the latter two services are not typically performed in hospitals regardless of religious affiliation),” the letter said. “Catholic hospitals do not limit availability of emergency or medically-necessary pregnancy care.”

While some reporting questions whether Catholic hospitals could treat ectopic pregnancies, the alliance said that Catholic-run hospitals already do this in a manner that complies with Catholic ethical directives.  

Catholic hospitals “provide the standard of care for women with pregnancy complications, miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies,” the alliance said. They always provide “urgent and emergent care” to the mother, “even if it results in the foreseen, but unintended, death of the fetus.”

The alliance said its health systems played an important role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing “scarce front-line medical, bed-capacity, PPE, testing and vaccine resources.”