Expansion of Catholic health systems leads to drop in abortion rates, study finds

Catholic hospitals are growing in number and so is their impact on reproductive services, according to a new study.

As of 2016, 40% of the largest health systems in the U.S. were faith-based, and 14.5% overall are Catholic systems, according to research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. More than 140 mergers between Catholic and non-Catholic systems have occurred since 1997.

Researchers at NBER examined Catholic hospitals across six states and found that the per-bed annual rates of major contraceptive procedures dropped by double-digit margins; inpatient abortion rates decreased by 30% and tubal ligation procedures decreased by 31%.

“This alone represents a substantial cost to women, who must subsequently rely on other, more inconvenient suboptimal forms of contraception,” the researchers said.

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The study did not find increased risk from these procedures, even though they were performed at lower volumes. And though these hospitals performed fewer contraceptive procedures, they didn’t perform significantly fewer Cesarean sections or other, related procedures, according to researchers.

The researchers also looked at data on vasectomies, but found limited information because those are typically outpatient procedures.

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The results feed into a long-simmering debate on the impact of Catholic healthcare on women’s access to contraceptives and other reproductive health services. In the spring, President Donald Trump added further fuel to the fire by signing an executive order to allow religious organizations to participate more in politics that could impede reproductive health access, advocates say.