In 2010, the Catholic Church excommunicated Margaret McBride, a nun and ethics board member at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona. McBride was excommunicated latae sententiae, or automatically, for approving a therapeutic abortion, which is an abortion that is required to save a pregnant woman’s life. McBride approved an abortion for a woman who was twenty-seven years old, eleven weeks pregnant with her fifth child, and suffered from pulmonary hypertension, a life-threatening condition during pregnancy. Following McBride’s decision, St. Joseph’s lost its affiliation with the Catholic Church, which it had maintained since the late 1800s. Affiliation with the Catholic Church required that the hospital abide by Canon Law, which is the law of the Catholic Church. Under Canon Law, abortion is serious wrongdoing that could result in excommunication, as it did in the case of McBride. McBride’s excommunication illustrated the impact that affiliation of Catholicism with hospitals had on patients’ ability to receive comprehensive reproductive health care.
Between 1925 and 1961, a Roman Catholic order of nuns called the Bon Secours Sisters operated the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home, or the Home, an institution where unmarried pregnant women gave birth in Tuam, Ireland. Pregnant women who delivered their infants at the Home were required to work at the Home for no less than one year without pay. The Irish government and the Catholic Church endorsed the Mother and Baby Home as a means to limit the number of children born out of wedlock by discouraging women from getting pregnant before marriage. During the Home’s thirty-six years of operation, the nuns reported that almost 800 children died in their care. In 2015, researchers discovered a tomb of 796 infant and child skeletons in a septic tank underneath where the Home once stood. The acceptance and use of Mother and Baby Homes revealed the way Ireland treated pregnant women in the twentieth century.
In 2002, Miramax Entertainment released The Magdalene Sisters, a film that portrays an interpretation of the true events experienced by four young women who were forcibly placed into a Magdalene asylum in Dublin, Ireland, in 1964. Catholic nuns ran Magdalene asylums throughout the world, where they forced women whom society deemed sexually promiscuous to perform hard labor in their laundry facilities. The film portrays the experiences of four women, Margaret, Bernadette, Rose, and Crispina, as they experienced negative treatment from the nuns and sought escape. Directed by Peter Mullan, The Magdalene Sisters provided a means to see how women, including unwed mothers, prostitutes, and those with disabilities, were affected by Magdalene laundries in Ireland.
In 2013, Lois Uttley, Sheila Reynertson, Larraine Kenny, and Louise Melling published “Miscarriage of Medicine: The Growth of Catholic Hospitals and the Threat to Reproductive Health Care,” in which they analyzed the growth of Catholic hospitals in the United States from 2001 to 2011 and the impact those hospitals had on reproductive health care. In the US, Catholic hospitals are required to abide by the US Catholic Church's Ethical Guidelines for Health Care Providers, also called the Directives. The authors of the article argue that the Directives threaten reproductive health because of their limitations on contraception, sterilization, some infertility treatments, and abortion. The report demonstrated an increase in Catholic hospitals and an associated impact on reproductive health care, which formed the basis for lawsuits the American Civil Liberties Union brought against various Catholic hospitals and health care networks during the early 2000s.
In 1998, Testimony Films released the documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, which reported the true stories of four survivors from the Magdalene asylums in Ireland in the twentieth century. Magdalene asylums, also called Magdalene laundries and homes, were institutions of the Catholic Church that sought to reform women engaged in prostitution and those who birthed children out of wedlock by forcing the women to do hard labor. Directed by Steve Humphries, the documentary interlocks four survivors’ stories of how they came to inhabit a Magdalene asylum, what occurred to them there, and how they eventually freed themselves. An Irish film festival first screened the documentary, which became the inspiration for the 2002 film, The Magdalene Sisters. Sex in a Cold Climate brought attention to the stories of women who survived Magdalene asylums, which prompted additional research and eventual justice for many of the women.