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New Bill Could Open Door to Abortions at Catholic Hospitals. It Could Also Jeopardize Care for Low-Income Californians

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UC doctors working at Catholic hospitals in California must abide by directives that prohibit care, including abortions, contraception and gender affirmation surgery. A new bill could change that. (Getty Images)

State lawmakers want to square conflicting health care values between public University of California hospitals and Catholic hospitals that collaborate on patient care, under a new bill introduced Wednesday by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco.

Under longstanding agreements between UC Health and Catholic hospital systems like Dignity Health or St. Joseph Health, UC doctors and medical students who provide care inside Catholic hospitals must abide by Catholic Church directives that prohibit abortions, sterilizations, contraception, some end-of-life options and gender affirmation surgery.

Wiener says this makes the public university system complicit in discriminating against women and transgender patients.

“The fact that a UC medical professional would not be able to provide care, I just think is honestly completely outrageous,” he said. “It’s because of the pride that we all have in UC and, frankly, the love that we hold for the system that we want to make sure that UC lives up to its high aspirations of providing health care to everyone.”

Senate Bill 379 would require UC health systems to renegotiate these agreements with Catholic hospitals to either allow UC staff to provide all care they deem medically necessary, or to end those affiliations altogether.

“Access to health care is fundamental to an equitable and successful society, and public institutions must lead by example in ensuring health care access,” Wiener said.

But Catholic hospitals said canceling these partnerships would likely harm health care access.


Dignity Health and the UC Health system are the number one and two providers of care to low-income Medi-Cal patients in the state.

“It would absolutely devastate access to health care for the most vulnerable,” said Lori Dangberg, vice president of the Alliance of Catholic Health Care, a trade group for Catholic hospitals. “At a time when COVID-19 is placing unprecedented demands on our state’s health care providers, any effort to weaken the safety net would only harm the state’s most vulnerable patients.”

In recent years, UCSF officials have said the affiliation it has with Dignity Health is necessary to meet the demand for care in San Francisco. Instead of turning patients away for lack of beds, it can transfer them to a Dignity hospital.

Similar partnerships provide other hard-to-access care across the state, particularly in rural areas, Dangberg said. UC Davis and Mercy Medical Center in Merced, a Dignity hospital, jointly run a cancer center providing treatment for more than 12,000 patients a year. UCLA specialists have provided pediatric trauma services to more than 700 patients at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, another Dignity facility.

Wiener said he recognizes the importance of these partnerships in expanding access to care and that he is not opposed to them per se, but he believes public employees and students should practice by standards set by state law, even if they’re practicing within the walls of a Catholic hospital.

Catholic hospitals say their directives are protected by law, too, and that the state cannot force them to provide abortions or other services that conflict with their moral code.

“Tolerance is a two-way street,” Dangberg said. “You’re welcome to practice in our hospitals, but you follow the policies, whether those policies are based on quality issues, economic issues or religious issues, you practice based on a hospital’s policy.”

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