March 2011

Do religious restrictions influence ectopic pregnancy management? A national qualitative study

Foster A, Dennis A, Smith F. Do religious restrictions influence ectopic pregnancy management? A national qualitative study. Women's Health Issues. March 2011; 21(2) 104-109.

INTRODUCTION:  In the United States, ectopic pregnancies are relatively common and associated with significant maternal morbidity and mortality. The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (the Directives) govern the provision of care in Catholic-affiliated hospitals and prohibit the provision of abortion in almost all circumstances. Although ectopic pregnancies are not viable, some Catholic ethicists have argued that the Directives preclude physicians at Catholic hospitals from managing tubal pregnancies with methods and procedures that involve "direct" action against the embryo.

METHODS: We undertook this qualitative study to explore the relationship between the Directives, hospital policies regarding ectopic pregnancy management, and clinical practices. We recruited participants at non-Catholic, longstanding Catholic, and recently merged facilities and conducted focused interviews with 24 physicians at 16 hospitals in 10 states.

FINDINGS: Participants from three Catholic facilities reported that medical therapy with methotrexate was not offered because of their hospitals' religious affiliation. The lack of methotrexate resulted in changes in counseling and practice patterns, including managing ectopic pregnancies expectantly, providing the medication surreptitiously, and transferring patients to other facilities. Further, several physicians reported that, before initiating treatment, they were required to document nonviability through what they perceived as unnecessary paperwork, tests, and imaging studies.

CONCLUSION: Our findings suggest that some interpretations of the Directives are precluding physicians from providing women with ectopic pregnancies with information about and access to a full range of treatment options and are resulting in practices that delay care and may expose women to unnecessary risks.