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Originally published May 21, 2013 at 9:00 PM | Page modified May 22, 2013 at 1:14 PM

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Is Catholic Church taking over health care in Washington?

We’d never turn our education system over to one church to run. Why are we doing it with health care?

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Lord knows our schools have problems. But suppose we tried to solve them by doing something radical — say, turning the schools over to the Catholic Church.

On the plus side, the Catholics have a good record of running quality schools. The minus side — besides the whole plan being unconstitutional — is that vast majorities of people around here don’t necessarily share Catholic religious values and don’t want their kids schooled in them at taxpayer expense.

If put to a vote, this plan would crater. Most of us aren’t Catholic, so I’m guessing we’d never go along with letting the creeds of that one faith run something as universal as education.

So why are we allowing it with health care?

By the end of this year, half of our state’s medical system will be Catholic-run, as measured by number of hospital beds. That’s the highest share in the nation, and rising fast — up from about 30 percent just last year. Somehow our godless state has become Ground Zero for faith-based medicine.

On Monday even the University of Washington medical system announced it was affiliating with PeaceHealth, a nonprofit-health group that is also a church ministry authorized by the Catholic archbishops of Portland and Seattle.

The Catholics have long run great hospitals, with a mission of serving the poor. So their growing dominance will do a lot of good.

But they also follow religious-based rules for their medicine. Contraception is discouraged, for example. Abortion is out, even in some cases of extrauterine pregnancy. Dying patients may find resistance to being removed from nutrition or hydration.

Out completely is any aid-in-dying. Catholic hospitals are barred from assisting with it and might not refer for it even if a patient asks.

To their credit, the Catholics mostly are stepping in to help financially struggling hospitals (although the UW certainly isn’t that.) And they are upfront about their goals.

“New partnerships can be viewed as opportunities for Catholic health-care institutions and services to witness to their religious and ethical commitments and so influence the healing profession,” says the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “For example, new partnerships can help to implement the Church’s social teaching.”

Meaning: Do good works and spread the doctrine. All of which would be fine if it wasn’t becoming a monopoly in some parts of the state. And wasn’t fueled with public money and no public oversight.

Why are the leaders in this state — the governor, the Legislature — generally letting religious folks call the shots with our health care?

I seriously doubt the publicly backed UW Medical Centers will start allowing religious rules to control medical treatment — this is still Seattle, after all. All hell would break loose.

But Catholic health services now run publicly backed hospitals and clinics from Vancouver to San Juan Island. So taxpayer money already is paying for bishop-guided medicine. All without a peep from the state about the rights of patients to get the legal care they need, not just whatever care the bishops consider moral.

“It’s insane that a state where conservative Catholics probably number around 5 percent, that we are allowing conservative Catholic principles to take over our health-care system,” says Monica Harrington, of Seattle, who runs a website called Catholic Watch devoted to this issue.

It ought to be the other way around. To get public funding, religious hospitals ought to be urged to abide by the public’s health-care principles as much as possible. Not us by theirs.

We’d never let the schools be ruled by a church, no matter how well-meaning. With our health care we’re halfway there.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to His column runs Wednesday and Sunday. | 206-464-2086

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