RACINE — You can’t get vasectomies at Ascension All Saints Hospital anymore.
Citing religious teachings, Catholic-affiliated Ascension All Saints has forbidden the surgical procedure, which renders a man permanently infertile, on its Racine campus, confirmed by the hospital’s urology department.
Per Catholic doctrine, any artificial form of birth control is considered sinful.
A statement issued by Ascension Health gave some insight into the decision.
“With the sun setting of the St. Luke’s Health Services agreement on the Racine campus, we are applying the ethical and religious directives to all sterilizations on that campus, both for men and women,” a reference to Catholic teachings.
The St. Luke’s Health Services agreement is what had allowed tubal ligations and vasectomies to be performed at All Saints. Ascension did not clarify whether anything else was entailed in the agreement.
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In February, The Journal Times reported that in July tubal ligations — the female equivalent of a vasectomy — would no longer be performed at All Saints. When that decision was made near the end of 2017, vasectomies were also supposed to be stopped immediately.
However, upon making the change, Ascension didn’t apparently inform all of its patients, or even its entire staff, according to a patient and the Journal Times report.
Gaps in communication
On Jan. 11, 37-year-old Racine resident Alonzo Pearson met with urologist Dr. Christopher Walsh at All Saints to set up a vasectomy.
Pearson’s wife, Erica, 36, had experienced multiple miscarriages. She also once became pregnant while taking birth control medication. Concerned about the financial burden of a third child and Erica’s well-being, the couple wanted to permanently prevent another pregnancy.
Erica Pearson said her husband’s initial appointment went smoothly and a surgery was scheduled for May, the earliest available date in Racine.
About a month later, Erica Pearson received a phone call from the Metropolitan Urology Group in Wauwatosa. She was asked if the Pearsons would like to reschedule the surgery, because All Saints was no longer performing vasectomies.
Pearson became confused. The couple hadn’t been notified about any change.
She called All Saints to see if the vasectomy had in fact been cancelled. It was true, but the urology department receptionist had to check with her supervisor first; Pearson said the receptionist was just as surprised as she was.
“Honestly, I was upset,” Pearson said. “I’m religious, but not Catholic … a hospital shouldn’t be able to turn anyone away. It should be my decision.”
Only consultations allowed
Walsh, who works at several community hospitals, had informed Metropolitan Urology Group of the change. He shared the operations that would need to be relocated, including Alonzo Pearson’s, according to a Metropolitan Urology staffer. An All Saints urology receptionist said Walsh is still allowed to conduct vasectomy consultations in Racine, but the surgeries have to be done elsewhere.
Ascension Health — which absorbed Wheaton Franciscan, Ministry Health Care, Columbia St. Mary’s and Affinity Health System in early 2016 — claims to have informed its staff about the changes in the latter half of 2017. Hospital officials disagree with The Journal Times report and subsequent editorials stating that men and women were treated differently. It maintains that the policy for both vasectomies and tubal ligations changed concurrently.
However, when reporters called All Saints in February, they were told that vasectomies were still allowed. That discrepancy may have been a result of the gaps in communication encountered by the Pearsons and The Journal Times.
Tubal ligations are still being performed through July to allow a buffer period for expectant mothers who had already established a delivery plan. If someone goes to All Saints seeking either procedure, they will now be directed elsewhere, according to hospital employees.
Ascension Health President and CEO Anthony Tersigni stands by his company’s credo of “delivering compassionate, personalized care to all.” His hospitals’ understanding and application of “personalized care” simply differs from that of the Pearsons.
Ascension is the largest system of Catholic hospitals in the country, with 153 hospitals in 22 states and Washington D.C., according to the company’s website. At the beginning of this month, the organization added another 10 hospitals by consuming Chicago-based Presence Health, first reported in Crain’s Chicago Business. According to 2017 financial statements, Ascension’s total assets equal just over $34 billion.
About 40 percent of Wisconsin’s hospitals are Catholic affiliated — greater than the national average — according to a 2016 report from The MergerWatch Project, a nonreligious healthcare watchdog based in New York. Twenty-three of Wisconsin’s 60-plus hospitals are run by Ascension, along with another 111 clinics, according to the company’s website.
‘A ministry of the church’
A 2016 Gallup poll found that 89 percent of Americans think birth control is morally acceptable. Eighty-two percent of American Catholics agreed, according to a 2012 poll.
The official Catholic teaching, defined by Pope Paul VI in 1968, states that any form of contraception is immoral. However, in 2015 world media outlets reported that Pope Francis joked that Catholics shouldn’t feel the need to reproduce “like rabbits.”
Ascension Health has called itself “a ministry of the church.” Following Catholic doctrine to a T would prohibit any form of birth control.
“Every sexual activity should be open to life,” said the Very Rev. Javier Bustos, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s delegate for healthcare. “Contraception is precisely an act against life, so the Catholic Church at this time is against that.”
In an emailed statement, Nicole Safar, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin’s vice president of public affairs and legal advocacy, said: “It’s concerning that a hospital is limiting the full range of healthcare options available to individuals based on institutional ideological doctrines.”
Ascension declined to say if these changes were coming to its other hospitals in addition to All Saints. At Columbia St. Mary’s in Milwaukee, also operated by Ascension, doctors can decide whether to perform a vasectomy or tubal ligation, according to a hospital employee. Other Ascension hospitals in Wisconsin still perform the procedures.
The Pearsons, meanwhile, are concerned that their insurance may not cover the procedure if it isn’t at their home hospital. They have yet to reschedule.
“We’ve had good experiences (at All Saints), except for this situation,” Erica Pearson said and spoke highly of her obstetrics-gynecology doctor and her children’s pediatrician.
Alyssa Mauk and Sari Lesk contributed reporting to this report.