In the following letter, a Catholic pediatrician shares the challenges he has faced in remaining true to his Faith and his Hippocratic commitment. What should our limits be, when we are called to compromise values in our practice as Christian healthcare professionals? Richard A. Watson, M.D.
Dear Catholic Radio Host, I am a Catholic pediatrician in the Midwest. I enjoy your program and everything you do on Catholic television and radio. I wanted to write you to mention something I heard on your most recent broadcast when a nurse practitioner called you at the very end of the program. She mentioned that she was employed in the student health center “at a state university.” She said she felt that she was doing a lot of good in presenting the Catholic teachings to students who were on hormonal contraception. However she also stated that she wrote prescriptions for contraceptives in order to keep that job. She had the idea that the end (providing pro-life advice and education to the patients) somehow justified the immoral means (writing prescriptions for contraceptives). The woman who was the guest on the air with you that day commended and congratulated the nurse practitioner for doing this. Fortunately, you stepped in but there was almost no time left in the program and I think that perhaps you did not have enough time to undo the statements made by your guest and by the caller. I used to work at a state university in the student health service. There was a lot of pressure on all the doctors there to provide immoral treatments. I did not do so. Therefore I was harassed and criticized by the director of the student health service. It had negative effects on my raises and evaluations. After a while, I decided to leave the student health service. I am now practicing pediatrics in my own office. A year or two ago, I learned that the director of the student health service where I was employed was no longer the director. One of my friends, a Catholic woman physician, had now become the medical director and she invited me to interview for an open job at the same university in the student health service. When I went to the interview, there was a large group of people there to interview me. One of the questions I was asked by the Catholic physician/medical director of the clinic was how I would handle requests by students for so called “emergency contraception.” I was a bit shocked that this question was even asked in that large group. Of course I told the interview panel of about ten people that I would not write prescriptions for so called “emergency contraception” or any other immoral things because of my Catholic faith. Having to be questioned in the presence of that many people all looking at me for an answer was somewhat intimidating. However, I gave the answer that I knew was right.
After that interview, I assumed I would not be offered the position because of how I replied to that question. To my surprise, I was notified that I had been chosen for the job. However, after thinking and praying about it, I thought it would be best not to accept the job. The nurse practitioner who called your program should resign from the job in which she is required to provide contraception to the patients. I am somewhat surprised that a person who regularly listens to Catholic radio is no better informed in her faith than she is. However, perhaps she was not telling the truth. She might actually know the teachings of the Church but might have invented the scenario to find out what your reaction would be. Without supplementary employment I must depend entirely on my own practice to make my living. It is very difficult when the local Catholic population chooses pediatricians and other physicians just as the general public does. Most Catholics I know take their children to pediatricians regardless of what immoral things might be going on at their own pediatrician’s office. Often it is more important to the mothers to have a female pediatrician or a physician who has nursed babies herself. Frequently the parents’ main concern is that the pediatrician be right around the corner from their house or any number of other criteria. I would like to have more patients at our private practice. I was interested in the job at the student health service to supplement the income from my practice. However, I will not commit mortal sins to make money or get a better retirement package from the state.
Finally, many people (including devout Catholics) have no idea how Catholic medical professionals are treated at U.S. state universities. Not long ago I was suspended from a non-salaried faculty position at the state university because I have religious art on the walls of our private office (e.g., a beautiful print of Michelangelo’s “Holy Family”) and with my permission one of the staff members had placed a couple of holy cards inside her work station (“Prayer to End Abortion” by Fr. Frank Pavone and an Immaculate Heart of Mary holy card). A medical student said these things made her feel uncomfortable because my “office looked like a Church.” That was a falsehood but I was still suspended from the Department of Pediatrics faculty for that and a couple of other things relating to how we practice pediatrics according to Catholic teachings. For example, I discussed with students why we do not give contraception to adolescents and why we do not keep secrets from the parents when we learn a child is involved in drugs or sexual activity. The provision of contraception and keeping secrets from parents are things that are encouraged by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the pediatric sub-specialty of adolescent medicine. Our practice is privately owned and not the property of the state university. Therefore the state university is not entitled to dictate faith related matters to our practice. I hope that on your radio broadcast you will try to revisit the response to that nurse practitioner. I am sure you can imagine what kind of pressure people like her put on truly pro-life Catholic doctors and nurses. God bless you and your work.