I used to live in Bartlesville, OK. It was just a short stop–six weeks–in the year of living in four towns. It’s a good thing we didn’t stay for a lot of reasons, but now I have one more.
Confidential sources told the Examiner-Enterprise this week that a meeting was held Wednesday to inform local doctors of gynecology and obstetrics that they can no longer prescribe contraceptives of any kind — if they are to be used as birth control.
How could this happen? Bartlesville is a town of only about 35,000 people. They have one hospital, Jane Phillips Medical Center. That hospital is part of Ascension Health, a large Catholic health care consortium, and nearly all of the OB-GYNs in town need to maintain privileges there in order to do their jobs.
When contacted Friday, one OB-GYN’s office confirmed that doctors had recently been told they could not prescribe birth control, but personnel appeared unsure if the policy was in effect immediately.
Only one local OB-GYN who is not affiliated with the hospital, Robert D. Oliver MD, an OB-GYN located at 226 SE DeBell Ave. in Bartlesville, remains unaffected by the measure.
Now, there are a few ways people can still get access to contraception. Dr. Oliver is likely to become as popular as he wants to be among those who don’t want to get pregnant, but those of his patients who need to be admitted to the hospital for some reason will have to have another OB-GYN while they’re there. Of course, he can’t take everyone. Others might have family physicians who don’t need to be affiliated with the hospital. People could travel to Tulsa, 47 miles away.
People could also lie about why they wanted birth control, assuming their doctors were helpful enough, but people don’t want to have to lie to get basic health care. Additionally, only hormonal birth control is indicated for a wide range of conditions. IUDs, which are more carefree and more effective than birth control pills for the same cost, are not something you get from your doctor because you say you get migraines.
At this point, it’s hard to say how many Ascension Health facilities have put or are putting this policy in place. The local paper in Bartlesville is the only news outlet to have reported this so far, as far as I can tell. If this is a uniform policy, however, this will affect an awful lot of doctors–and far more patients.
According to online reports, Ascension Health owns more than 113,000 facilities and has 150,000 associations with more than 1,500 locations in 22 states and the District of Columbia. The company was established in November 1999 and is headquartered in St. Louis, Mo.
The company has published literature indicating it is decidedly against anything that would cause the death of a fetus.
Although their position is entirely anti-scientific, this last statement includes any form of birth control. Even if you’ve been raped, you’re probably not going to be allowed emergency contraception, because Ascension makes it clear that the situation is really iffy but hugely important (pdf). By the way, you’ve already agreed to this if you live in Bartlesville and are treated or work at the only hospital in town. No, really, the U.S. Conference of Bishops says so:
When the health care professional and the patient use institutional Catholic health care, they also accept its public commitment to the Church’s understanding of and witness to the dignity of the human person.
That comes from the Ethical And Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services (pdf). You should probably read it if you live in one of those 1,500 locations in 22 states, wherever they are, or if your local hospital or clinic is Catholic-owned. There are 17 directives just in the section on “Issues in Care for the Beginning of Life”. I doubt they’ll hand you all 43 pages to read and sign off on in the emergency room.
From what I can tell, prior Ascension Health policy has been to prohibit abortion, sterilization, and the prescription of contraception only within the facilities it owns. Prohibiting affiliated doctors from providing this care in other spaces is new, assuming that this isn’t a gross miscommunication on Ascension Health’s part.
Whether this turns out to be true or not, this story exposes a gap in reproductive health protections. The Church Amendments (pdf) prohibit at the federal level discriminating against abortion or sterilization providers in granting privileges. No such protection appears (to my untrained eyes) to be granted to those who prescribe contraception, probably because no one imagined we would need that protection. Whether Ascension Health is currently moving this directions or not, it’s clear that some Catholic health group will.
We need to get regulation in place on this now.