Religious Hospitals Need Not Apply

University behind fetal tissue research cut ties with Catholic hospitals over religious beliefs, practices

UCSF Medical Center
UCSF Medical Center / Wikimedia Commons
June 9, 2019

The University of California at San Francisco cancelled an expanded partnership with Catholic hospitals just weeks before losing government funding for its aborted-baby body part research.

On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced that it would no longer allow government scientists to conduct research using organs and cells procured from aborted babies. As part of that policy, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would not renew a $13 million contract with UCSF to supply researchers with mice injected with fetal tissue. The university condemned the decision swiftly, saying that it would hurt patients and "undermine scientific discovery."

UCSF has been willing to break off relationships with other health care providers over disputes about medical ethics. In May, the university cancelled plans to expand its affiliation with Dignity Health and its four regional hospitals. The announcement came following a pressure campaign from campus activists and faculty about Dignity's religious philosophy on abortion, euthanasia, and gender issues.

"Many of you have expressed strong concerns about a significantly expanded UCSF relationship with a health care system that has certain limits on women’s reproductive services, LGBTQ care, and end-of-life options," UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood said in a statement on the university website. "Given the concerns, we will not continue to pursue the affiliation as it had been envisioned, which would have created a stronger link between UCSF Health and Dignity Health’s four Bay Area hospitals."

When asked about the decision to halt the expansion and what it means for other religious health care institutions moving forward, a university spokeswoman referred to the original statement. The university has worked with Dignity Health, California's largest hospital system and the fifth largest in the country, for 20 years. Hawgood went on to say that the decision to cut off an expanded relationship was about "expanding access to welcoming and respectful health care."

The university is sending a mixed message if the goal is to be "welcoming," according to Dr. T. Brian Callister, governor of the Nevada chapter of the American College of Physicians. Callister said UCSF's decision will limit access to care in order to appease the demands of political activists.

"Dignity Health is a high quality organization," Callister said. "It's sad that politics about what are generally elective procedures will now further limit UCSF patients' overall access to care and does nothing to alleviate their bed shortage."

A spokesman for Dignity Health declined an interview request, instead pointing to a May press release sent in the aftermath of the UCSF decision. The hospital network, founded by nuns with the Sisters of Mercy in 1986, insists it will continue to serve UCSF patients in other ways even without an expansion.

"Going forward we will explore ways to work together to meet all patient needs and increase access to critical health services," a Dignity Health spokeswoman said in the statement. "We remain committed to our existing partnership with UCSF Health, which includes many important services, such as mental health, robotic surgery, neurology, vascular podiatry, adolescent psychiatry, and several others."