Giving Birth at a Catholic Hospital?

Things you need to know if your beliefs don't align.


The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Why? The ACLU says that Catholic hospitals adhere to policies that may put women at risk. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, but what happens if you live in a one-hospital town, and your beliefs don't line-up with those of the establishment? Here's what you need to know.

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There are two polarizing healthcare services at issue here: abortion and tubal ligations (or other sterilization services), since the Catholic Church doesn't support abortion or contraception. But, when a mother's life is at risk, the Church does't prohibit procedures that cause the birth of a fetus, even when it is almost guaranteed to die. The following is taken directly out of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, Fifth Edition; United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.

Meaning, if a woman is pregnant and she suffers a life-threatening complication, like pre-eclampsia, her health might depend on delivering that baby ASAP, even if it's too young to survive outside the womb. Most Catholic hospitals would agree that, under these circumstances, she needs to be induced, even though delivery will inevitably result in the baby's death.

Related: What to Expect After Giving Birth in a Hospital

Still, some hospitals follow a "no terminations ever" policy, leaving no options for women in a life threatening situation. Mothers should think about three things when delivering in Catholic hospitals:

1) The unlikely chance they'll need to terminate their pregnancy for health reasons. 2) What they'll do if they want to have their tubes tied. 3) How they feel about delivering at a hospital with a religious perspective that may or may not reflect their own values.

I recommend women talk to their doctors about these issues early on in their prenatal care. Example: "What do you do when a patient needs to terminate her pregnancy?" In most cases, the doctor would present the medical case to the hospitals' ethics review board (it's a fast process), and permission would be granted for a medically necessary procedure. If that board denies permission, then other arrangements must be made.

Tubal ligations (surgical procedures that result in permanent sterilization) are also prohibited in the Catholic Church, but there are ways around the mandate—even in Catholic hospitals. When a woman wants her tubes tied, her doctor writes a letter to the ethics review board stating the medical reasons why tubal ligation is in her best interest—usually because of potential medical complications based on the mother's age, health status or risks associated with having more pregnancies. If she needs to have a C-section, her doctor will appeal based on saving the mother a second surgery in a different hospital. Usually, in the hospitals where I worked, permission was granted and the woman received her tubal ligation. When permission was denied, she either delivered without the procedure, or had it done at another hospital.

Related: Why You Don't Want a C-Section

Worth noting: Even through controversial policies, I've seen a lot of good come out of Catholic hospitals. I've had staunchly non-religious patients request a priest to bless their babies after they're born and families who request prayers during hard deliveries. I've even seen one priest deliver a baby in the hospital lobby for a mother who couldn't wait to get to the maternity ward. I've seen Catholic hospitals make patients' bills disappear when they were unable to pay.

Ultimately, it's up to you. Occasionally, patients object to delivering in a hospital whose religious undertones conflict with their own views. Others make do with the hospital nearest to them. The most important thing is doing your research beforehand.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to

This Fit Pregnancy blog is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace medical advice from your physician. Before initiating any exercise program, diet or treatment provided by Fit Pregnancy, you should seek medical advice from your primary caregiver.