When Religion Meets Medical Malpractice

Across the country, there is an increasing trend for large hospital entities to absorb smaller chains under their umbrellas. An estimated 600 hospitals across the United States are Catholic, and more are associated with other religions. When religion and healthcare mix, some worry that health outcomes suffer. Do religious practices in hospitals force doctors to provide substandard care, leading to medical malpractice?


The complicated relationship between religion and medicine is making it more difficult for Americans to access healthcare. Consider the case of Jessica Mann, a young woman who recently had a baby and wanted her tubes tied after the procedure. Her local hospital, a Catholic medical center in Michigan said no. Tubal litigation is not allowed in Catholic hospitals, as are other procedures that prevent pregnancy—even when the mother’s health is at stake. Mann has a rare brain tumor, and her doctor suggested a sterilization procedure, citing that further pregnancies could endanger her health and perhaps even be fatal. But the hospital refused to do the procedure, citing an exemption that allows them to forbid the procedure on religious grounds.

Federal law stipulates that medical providers can legally refuse abortion or sterilization services for religious reasons. Most providers, however, are legally bound to provide care in the event of an emergency. Even when a religious hospital provides emergency services, bylaws can lead to unnecessary services and delays in medical care. For example, a woman was recently travelling in the Midwest with her husband when she developed severe abdominal pain, landing her in a nearby emergency room. Doctors determined that she had an ectopic pregnancy, a life-threatening condition in which an embryo implants in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus. A drug called Methotrexate can force the embryo out of the tube, but according to Catholic bylaws, this constitutes an abortion. Instead, doctors working for Catholic organizations are required to remove the tube that contains the embryo.


Malpractice hinges on the idea of negligence: that another doctor would have performed differently in the same circumstances. Doctors are trained to make decisions that are both minimally invasive and maximize the outcome for the patient. Methotrexate is clearly less invasive than surgery, and most health care professionals consider it a “first-line” treatment for ectopic pregnancy. However, when doctors are operating under the religious constraints of an institution, the law becomes less clear. The key in determining malpractice is the phrase “given the same circumstances.” In secular hospitals, doctors would give a woman with an ectopic pregnancy Methotrexate before risking a serious surgery. But when health care providers are forced to follow Catholic directives, they must recommend surgery—even if it goes against the current standard of care.


In some religions, vaccines are considered a violation of the body, which many people consider a holy vessel. However, the Center for Disease Control and other organizations involved with world health care consider vaccines to be a necessary health service to protect the general public, especially young children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. While the State of Pennsylvania currently allows philosophical exemptions to vaccination, lawmakers are moving to ban personal exemptions, citing that vaccines save lives and that exemptions should only be granted on medical or religious grounds.

Vaccines are a sensitive subject. Some claim that vaccination should be a personal choice, while others hold that herd immunity protects vulnerable populations from preventable disease. Still others, such as those with children who cannot take vaccines due to compromised immune systems—like those undergoing chemotherapy—rightly suggest that healthy children without vaccines endanger their own children’s health.

The relationship between medicine and religion can be tough to navigate. Do not let your rights be lost in the process. If you have any questions about the quality of your medical services, contact us on (215) 567-7600 and speak with a Philadelphia medical malpractice attorney from the Hill & Associates law firm for a free case evaluation. We take our clients on a contingency basis, so you only pay if we win. Get in touch today.