- - Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The San Juan Islands lie off the northwest coast of Washington state, remote and pristine in their natural beauty of mountains, sandy beaches and fir and pine forests. Tourists are naturally drawn to the islands to kayak in the sea or to watch orca whales cavorting in the icy waters. The only way in is by ferry or planes from the mainland. But the 172 San Juan Islands have not been a good place to get sick. Now a Roman Catholic health care group has taken over Peace Island Medical Center, a hospital in Friday Harbor, and the new owners have made many improvements, providing advanced tests for residents and sparing them a long trip to the mainland for procedures such as, for example, a CT scan.

This has upset some of the islanders, who worry that certain procedures forbidden by Catholic belief and teaching will not be readily available. They cite a policy statement on health care by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that “Catholic health care does not offend the rights of individual conscience, by refusing to provide or permit medical procedures that are judged morally wrong by the teaching authority of the Church.”

The state Department of Health last month began a rule-making proceeding that will impose new restrictions on hospitals. Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said the department “shall ensure hospitals supply non-discrimination, end of life care and reproductive health care policies.” This presumably means hospitals must provide abortions and offer to unplug life-support machines.

Because hospitals owned by Catholic and other faith-based organizations are compensated by Medicaid and other public funds, critics and others argue that the hospitals must defer to the state’s will. “The Catholic bishops are imposing their moral values upon Catholics and non-Catholics alike through their control of Catholic hospital and medical systems, which are heavily financed with taxpayer dollars,” argues Monica Harrington, a former Seattle-based Microsoft Corp. marketing executive who now writes for the “CatholicWatch” blog.

But in remote and sparsely populated places such as the San Juan Islands, there’s often no one else willing to step forward and take over hospitals in need. Without the intervention of religiously affiliated health care systems, many parts of Washington state could be severely deprived of critical health services. The Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says that by the end of this year, 47 percent of acute-care hospital beds in the state will be subject to the “moral authority” of Catholic bishops.

Religious organizations generally undertake to operate hospitals and clinics not to make profits, but to do good, and particularly among those least-served: the poor, immigrants, the sick and the infirm. Christians, such as Catholics, naturally want to follow the dictates of their faith and the example of Christ. How church and state forge working compromises to respect mutually held rights is an old dilemma in America, often stirring bitter controversy.

Without the help of religious organizations, many needy places, such as the San Juan Islands, would go without. Mr. Inslee and the Department of Health should keep this firmly in mind when they are tempted to evict the religious from the hospitals, where the consolations of faith are most needed, the very consolations the state cannot provide.

The Washington Times