Women want to know about religious restrictions when seeking reproductive healthcare

Religious hospitals are playing a growing role in United States healthcare. One in 6 hospital beds is in a Catholic hospital, governed by directives from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. These directives restrict many kinds of reproductive healthcare, including miscarriage care, contraception and abortion. A group of UCSF Bixby Center and University of Chicago researchers has conducted the first known nationally representative survey of women aged 18-45 to gauge their understanding and preferences regarding reproductive healthcare restrictions at religiously affiliated hospitals.

Researchers found that the majority (81%) of women wanted information about restrictions on reproductive options before deciding where to seek care. Yet only a third wanted to know about the religious affiliation of a hospital ahead of time. This discrepancy aligns with previous research showing that many people are not aware that religious hospitals operate under restrictive directives until they are already patients and are denied care.

To explore the impact of restrictions, the researchers asked about miscarriage care. They described the three ways doctors can treat a miscarriage: waiting to see if the body completes the miscarriage on its own, providing medication, or a surgical procedure. Catholic hospitals only allow wait-and-see unless the life of the woman is at risk. Only about a third of women found it acceptable for religious hospitals to present only the wait-and-see option to women.

About two-thirds of respondents found it unacceptable for hospitals to restrict care based on religion. For the one-third who thought it would be acceptable if certain conditions were met, conditions with the strongest support included:

  • patients are informed before admission
  • people are informed before enrolling as patients
  • patients are offered transfer to other facilities
  • another facility within 10 miles offers the care

This research shows that patients want additional information in order to make informed decisions. Currently, hospitals are not required to inform patients about restrictions on reproductive healthcare. The burden falls on patients, regardless of their health literacy, to research and determine what services hospitals offer. Understanding that a large majority of women want this information should inform both hospitals’ practice and state policies.