WACO, TEXAS, February 27, 2012, (LifeSiteNews.com) – A multi-year review of 176 Catholic hospitals in seven states found that 48 percent have performed direct female sterilizations. The author of the study, Sandra Hapenney, warns this could undermine Catholic health institutions’ ability to invoke conscience clause protections to opt out of performing sterilizations.

To earn a Ph.D. in Church-State Studies at Baylor University, Hapenney requested data from 1,734 hospitals in California, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Washington. Of these, 176 were Catholic hospitals that offered obstetric services.

By tracking medical codes in hospital records, she discovered nearly half of these institutions had performed female sterilizations.

That amounted to 20,073 sterilizations.

The “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in 2009, states, “Direct sterilization of either men or women, whether permanent or temporary, is not permitted in a Catholic health care institution.” Only indirect sterilizations, which result in infertility while treating another medical condition, are permitted.

In 2008, Bishop Alvara Corrada, then in the diocese of Tyler, Texas, forced two Catholic hospitals to stop performing tubal ligations. Hapenney found his efforts successfully ended the practice at those institutions.

After making her full dissertation available online at her website, CatholicHospitals.org, Hapenney found herself on the receiving end of criticism from the Catholic Health Association (CHA).

Fred Caesar of the CHA wrote, “We put no credence in the study” and told reporters that other health specialists said the report contains unspecified “gross errors.” Carl Middleton, vice president of theology and ethics for Catholic Health Initiatives, added that bill coding was subject to human error, although he did not point to any specific error.

Dr. Hapenney told LifeSiteNews.com her critics had not pointed out a single error in her dissertation.

Her critics charged “that the study contained ‘gross errors’ – without finding them or stating what these gross errors might be,” she said.

“There is no real doubt about the validity of the type of data used in this study since it is provided by the hospitals to the State in compliance with regulatory laws and is regularly used by researchers,” she wrote in a press release countering the objections.

“I’m asking for a retraction,” she told LifeSiteNews.com

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When she first posted the data, Hapenney says she over-counted the number of sterilizations in Indiana by five. “I immediately rechecked my data and corrected it before publishing the dissertation,” she told LifeSiteNews. “I had Baylor recheck everything, [to] assure all the data was correct.” They found she had under-counted the number of sterilizations in California by 14.

Hapenney’s faculty adviser was Dr. Francis J. Beckwith. “She went through the data very carefully, discovering only one very minor mistake that was corrected before she submitted her final version to the graduate school dissertations holdings,” Dr. Beckwith said in a statement e-mailed to LifeSiteNews.com. 

Hepenney tracked the number of patient records that used the medical code V25.2, a code that always indicates a voluntary sterilization. If it were an indirect procedure allowed by Catholic theology, another code to indicate the emergency would have been used, she said.

“Some Catholic health insurance policies identify the V25.2 code as something they will not pay for,” he told LifeSiteNews.com. “Med-Cal of California also saw it as an elective surgery.”

“My whole goal was to try to get the truth out,” Dr. Hapenney said.

The fact that some Catholic hospitals perform voluntary sterilizations may threaten the ability of Catholic hospitals to refuse to do so if forced, Hapenney writes. Her dissertation notes, “such diversity may pose judicial and political problems for providing protection under the conscience clauses.”

The issue has roared to life since the Obama administration’s health care reform mandates that all health insurance plan cover sterilization.

CHA President Sr. Carol Keehan had advance knowledge of the administration’s “accommodation” and offered her organization’s early support.

“I’m hoping that the bishops will now know what’s going on and will be able to come up with better or more enforceable ERDs [Ethical and Religious Directives]” so they “can look at what’s actually going on in the hospital and hold them to higher standards.”

Presently, there is no mechanism to compel anyone who sees an ethical violation in a Catholic hospital to report it. “I’m hoping that by demonstrating the magnitude of the problem, [the bishops] can develop mechanisms which will help them oversee the issues better and act on them.”

Her good intentions have not spared her heated, if imprecise, scrutiny.

“I don’t understand the harsh criticism of Dr. Hapenney’s work, since you would think that Catholic health care professionals would welcome her research as an opportunity to remedy whatever problems they may have inadvertently missed over the years,” Dr. Beckwith told LifeSiteNews.com.

“Each of us, no matter where we find ourselves in the church’s ministries, should welcome correction with humility and grace. For without that mutual oversight, we lose touch with what it means to be one body, one spirit in Christ.”