When Ascension’s St. Joseph Hospital in Milwaukee announced it would cut back services in 2018, residents of the surrounding Sherman Park area balked.
The predominantly black, low-income neighborhood already faced its share of challenges. Nearly a third of residents in the ZIP code live in poverty, and black infants born there are more than twice as likely to die as white infants. Residents feared that reducing services would exacerbate these disparities, and even pave the way for the hospital to be shuttered completely.
They protested fiercely to keep services in place, and St. Joseph’s parent company, Ascension Wisconsin, eventually put the cuts on hold. St. Joseph Hospital works to maintain the community’s trust and fulfill the unmet social needs of patients, through programs such as Blanket of Love, which educates families about prenatal health, nutrition and exercise.
“It’s an anchor institution there,” says Reggie Newson, chief advocacy officer at Ascension Wisconsin.
But St. Joseph remains the target of a different kind of protest. The hospital is Catholic, which means it follows Ethical and Religious Directives, a set of rules written by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The rules prohibit Catholic hospitals, except in extreme situations, from providing procedures the church deems immoral — including abortions, contraception and sterilization. In-vitro fertilization is banned, as is physician-assisted suicide which is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, although not in Wisconsin.
Asma Kadri Keeler, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Wisconsin, recently met with members of the St. Joe’s Accountability Coalition, a community group formed after Ascension announced its cutbacks. After she informed them about Catholic hospital policy, “Light bulbs went off in the room,” Keeler says.
Although the majority of people surveyed by the community group had positive views of St. Joseph, some residents told Keeler they were worried and hesitant to send their pregnant loved ones to the hospital.
“We take the position that it (religious liberty) can’t be used to harm other people,” she says.
Reproductive rights advocates say the restrictions impose religious doctrine on patients and violate medical standards of care in ways that disproportionately affect communities like Sherman Park.