Report: Doctors at Oklahoma hospital banned from prescribing birth control

"My physician has been instructed that they can no longer write prescriptions for birth control," said one patient

Published April 1, 2014 1:38PM (EDT)

            (<a href=''>gualtiero boffi</a>, <a href=''>salajean</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(gualtiero boffi, salajean via Shutterstock/Salon)

Doctors affiliated with a small Catholic hospital in Bartlesville, Okla., are no longer allowed to prescribe contraception for the purposes of birth control, according to a report from the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise.

According to the report, a meeting was held last week to inform doctors of the new directive barring them from prescribing contraceptives as birth control; according to the Examiner-Enterprise, doctors are allowed to prescribe contraceptives for non-birth control purposes, such as cramps, menstrual pain or endometriosis.

“I have spoken to my doctor about my birth control options,” one patient impacted by the directive told the Examiner-Enterprise. “I was told that my physician has been instructed that they can no longer write prescriptions for birth control as birth control. This effects me because I take birth control as birth control. There are other ways to receive birth control, for example headaches, cramps, excessive bleeding -- but I have none of those symptoms.

“I was given the impression that birth control for those reasons would be overlooked, but I have no desire to stretch the truth or fabricate a reason. This is between me and my physician. This is about my health care. Why should we have to commit borderline insurance fraud because I want to maintain my health care?”

Another patient said she worries the new policy will hurt access to health care -- and the local economy. “I heard about the change in policy on Wednesday night so Thursday I called my OB-GYN to find out if, in fact, they would no longer be offering IUD [intrauterine device] services. I was told that at this point the information was still very new and they did not know what would be happening in the future, but for now they weren’t accepting any new IUD appointments," she told the Examiner-Enterprise. "This is not just an issue of women’s health care rights but it is also an economic issue for our town. Refusing birth control doesn’t stop women from getting it, but it takes patients away from our local doctors and hands money directly to Owasso and Tulsa, money that should be staying here in Bartlesville.”

She also addressed the dangers of having a religiously affiliated hospital as the only health care provider in the area. “I do not think a religiously affiliated hospital system is good for Bartlesville," she explained. "We have one hospital and when that hospital refuses services that almost half the population wants, due to its religious beliefs, it forces money to leave Bartlesville."

A representative for St. John Health Systems, the Catholic health conglomerate that owns Jane Phillips Medical Center, said that the hospital's policy on contraception is "consistent with all Catholic health care organizations," but that physicians are able to prescribe medicine as they see fit:

Consistent with Catholic health care organizations, St. John Health System operates in accordance with the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, and therefore, does not approve or support contraceptive practices. However, only physicians (not institutions) are licensed to practice medicine and make medical judgments. While our physicians agree to abide by the Directives, they also have the ability to prescribe medications, including hormonal medications, in accordance with their independent professional medical judgment. This includes informing patients when they are operating under their own professional medical judgment and not on behalf of St. John Health System.

But doctors in the area are unclear about the policy -- if it impacts practices outside of the hospital and what that impact may be.

Robert Oliver, a gynecologist in the area, says he heard of the directive from other doctors. “It’s really frightening for all of us,” he told Fox 23.

The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Facilities are the religious guidelines that dictate what care can and cannot be administered in a Catholic hospital; these guidelines prohibit doctors from providing in-vitro fertilization, certain forms of contraception, abortion care and other health services.

Catholic affiliated hospitals abide by religious doctrine -- often in defiance of best medical practice -- but benefit from significant amounts of public funding, including state and federal grants for Title X family planning programs, Medicare and Medicaid.

The Catholic health directives -- authored by bishops, not doctors -- are also radically out of step with the kind of care most Catholics want and need. Around 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have at some point in their lives used a form of birth control that the Vatican does not approve of; 68 percent of Catholic women actively use a form of "highly effective" birth control, such as the pill, sterilization or IUDs. Catholic women also have abortions at the same rate as other groups of women -- around 28 percent. And recent data suggests that 65 percent of Catholics believe that hospitals and clinics that receive public money should not be allowed to deny medical services based on religious doctrine, and 68 percent of Catholic women don’t want a Catholic hospital to be the only medical care option in their communities.

The new policy is reported to have been ordered by Ascension Health, a non-profit Catholic health services company that recently acquired St. John Health System. Ascension has yet to comment.

Nearly half of the largest nonprofit health care systems in the nation are Catholic1 in 6 American patients currently receive care in a Catholic hospital.

This piece has been updated to include a statement from St. John Health Systems.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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