Religious Belief vs. Health Care – Tolerating the Intolerable in Italy

Britain’s Telegraph carries an opinion piece titled If Muslim doctors are intolerant, let them go, according to which a few young Muslim medical trainees have been allowed to refuse to see female bodies or to treat alcohol-related problems, on religious grounds. Sainsbury’s, a UK grocery chain, allows its checkout staff to refuse to scan alcohol if they have religious objections, and there have apparently been cases of taxi drivers refusing passengers who were carrying alcohol.

The opinion piece decries all this – if you’re hired to do a job involving the public, you should not be allowed to discriminate among that public for any reason – and I agree.

The medical question is the most important: to what extent do doctors have a right to refuse treatment that they personally disagree with? The American fundamentalist Christian pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control pills are not carrying out their duty to serve the public; they are conveyors of a necessary public good, and have no right to impose their beliefs on their customers. If you can’t stand the birth control, get out of the pharmacy.

At least in America and Britain there is resistance to these attitudes and attempted practices. In Italy, we have silent acquiescence in similarly unethical behavior by Catholic medical personnel.

When my daughter’s class had (two short sessions of) sex education during her second year of high school here in Lecco, they were warned by the local family health doctor who came to teach them that, while abortion is legal in Italy (and their parents don’t even have to be involved), they would have trouble obtaining an abortion in Lecco (a very Catholic town).

Several of her friends learned the hard way that even obtaining the morning-after pill (also perfectly legal in Italy, but requiring a prescription) can be difficult. One friend went to the hospital (accompanied by her boyfriend) immediately after a condom accident to request it. The doctors and nurses in the ob/gyn department jeered at her and refused. Wandering, crying, through the halls, she eventually ran into a sympathetic doctor who exclaimed furiously “They have no right!” and wrote her the prescription. Othere friends have told Ross similar stories.

An American friend living in Tuscany (fully grown with a teenage daughter) was refused an IUD by her family doctor, on the grounds that this doctor believed the device to be an abortifacient.

The other day I had a routine gynecological exam and pap test. I’ve been thinking about the problem of long-term birth control, so I asked the doctor how one goes about getting sterilized in Italy, and how much it costs. He told me that a sterlization operation is free and easily obtained in Italy (for both sexes), but that I would not be able to do it in Lecco.

To say I was astonished is to put it mildly.

“So I’m supposed to have all the babies god sends me?” I demanded.

“No comment,” he said drily (and in English).

He said I could easily get it done in the nearby hospital of Merate: “What does it matter when you can do it just 20 km down the road?”

How about the principle of the thing? And the law? In a worst-case scenario, what if the Catholic fundamentalist attitude prevalent in Lecco were to spread? Suppose someone found herself in Lecco’s hospital in some serious condition requiring a therapeutic abortion – would they still refuse? Could they, legally? Would anyone bother to enforce the law, whatever it is? Or do we, as usual, just put up with it because “that’s the way it’s always been” and find a workaround? And who are these goddamned Catholics to tell me what to do with my body?

Some of this was old news – Pierangelo Bertoli wrote a song about it decades ago: Certi Momenti.

Oct 29, 2007: Benedict appeals to pharmacists
“They shouldn’t have to sell ‘immoral drugs’, pope says” – And do you know what I say to the Pope? I’m sure you can figure it out…

Pope’s “morning after pill” speech criticized

13 thoughts on “Religious Belief vs. Health Care – Tolerating the Intolerable in Italy

  1. kataroma

    I completely agree – those fundamentalist Catholic doctors have no right to foist their beliefs on others who do not share their beliefs. And the lack of outrage at this kind of thing in Italy is disturbing. I’m really shocked at what happenned to that poor girl and her boyfriend in your daughter’s class. I’ve taken the morning after pill myself and I felt scared and embarassed enough without having doctors and nurses jeering at me.

    Apparently, some Catholic doctors also refuse to give decent pain relief to people who are suffering (believing that suffering pain increases your chance of getting into heaven, apparently) and the Catholic lobby was also one of the reason epidurals were not covered by the public healthcare system until very recently (6 months ago) and even now they are hard to get in many hospitals.

  2. Whimspiration

    Wow. Should I feel thankful that in my country everyone is equally delusional, religiously biased, and sadistic everywhere?

    I agree with you that these people are idiots, but in all honesty, I wish I lived somewhere where I could travel for an hour and get the medical treatment I desired or needed instead of having to travel 4 days and get a passport for the same privilege.

    I say you start (or join) a grassroots movement to stop these types of inequity. Surely there are others that share your ire.

  3. webmaster

    I’ve been meaning for some time to write a note to my Italian readers stating that just because I criticize something in Italy doesn’t mean I find nothing to criticize in the US or that I want to live there instead. If I wanted to live in the US, I’d be living there. Italy is my adopted country… wait, I have said all this before:

  4. kataroma

    Whimspiration – problem is

    a) it’s more than a 16 hour drive from Rome to the border with Swizerland and for others further down the boot it’s even longer.
    b) If you’re resident in Italy, you can’t access healthcare in another EU country without being resident there (except in emergencies). So by the time that poor girl switches her residency to Germany, gets enrolled in the healthcare system there and drives 2-3 days to the border it’ll be too late for the morning after pill.

  5. James

    I think the two examples (Muslims in GB and you in Lecco) are kinda’ opposites, while still being very similar. You chose to relocate in Lecco, knowing (I am guessing/hoping/presuming, as you are not of belowaverageintelligence) pretty well what kind of culture you were moving into: a very Catholic area filled with a relatively closed and uniform social more, probably limited acceptance (at least to begin with), not much leeway for “liberal” ethical behavior.
    The muslim doctors in GB knew what they were studying (or going to have to study when they signed up for medical school [if they didn’t, all the more reason to flunk them out immediately]): a country where the majority (of non-Muslims) for whom Pubs are a common feature on Friday evenings, binge drinking is common, sexual promiscuity is not particularly frowned upon within certain limits.
    Don’t want to treat heathens and infidels? Study your medicine in a country where they don’t pretend it of you. Don’t like driving a taxi where someone might enter carrying alcoholic beverages? Drive a taxi in a city where that is not permitted, not where it is your problem and not your client’s, since you have chosen a job in a public service.

    Going back to your post on the superlegal American society, I think this is also someway tied to many of the *original* intentions of the federal structure of the USA (most of which have NO resemblance nor trace in the present governmental structure or legal system.
    As one example, there was to be no FEDERAL intervention in Religion (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”) but several states had and kept State churches at the time of the newly found country. Sort of: “Don’t like our Religion? Go found your own state” (Utah comes to my small, limited mind as a woinderfully fulfilling example). You came here, you chose to come here, you abide by the rules that we have here.
    Nothing about not putting a Manger in the town square because it might offend other religions or citing a God in the nationally approved Pledge of Allegiance to your country of chosen residence. (once it was possible answer an unreasonable request with “tough shit” – no longer, it’s not politically correct)

    I will admit that in Italy, your complaints have more foundation than what I read into the GB problems: there IS a law. But that law was passed after many of the doctors that refuse to comply to its letter were already GPs for many years, plying their trades (and advice – do you remember Marcus Welby that seemed half rabi half father half doctor?) well before they were *forced* to provide these newfangled inventions/medications for their patients (the ethics of which are quite discutable, even if *my* [personal] ethics may accept them).

    And you need to recognize the drastic local differences still today present between even limited geographical distances (a relatively natural federalism). You want atheistic liberalism? you move to college in Bologna and end up staying. You like Catholic conservitism? you go to Cattolica in Milan and take the train every day and in the end open your office in Lecco. All within 1.5h of Milan (FFSS permitting), less than some daily commutes in the US Northeast.

  6. webmaster

    Good points, but some caveats: I did not know much about Lecco when I moved here, and was deeply surprised to find that any part of Italy could be so Catholic as to deny me basic health rights in violation of national law.

    And it’s not so simple here in Italy to “move somewhere else if you don’t like it.” Most Italians prefer to stick close to their origins for many family, cultural, and economic reasons, even when they don’t completely fit in with local culture, and even those who might like to move can find it very difficult to do so.

    Which is why it can be profoundly miserable to be any kind of “misfit” in Italy – I have read some very unhappy stories of gay people living in small towns here. “I’ll move to San Francisco” is an impossible dream for most.

  7. James

    “some caveats: I did not know much about Lecco when I moved here”
    I have difficulty believing that someone with as much international experience as you might not have brought a more “Caveat Emptor” approach in moving there.
    After all, the DC were the majority party in the entire country until not so very long ago, and the conservative Catholic lobby (read the Holy See) has always held quite wide sway with the local legislators (intending to include only those that pass somewhere near or through Rome to vote on national matters).

    While, on many issues, the rest of public opinion has been swayed (not surprisingly, in many cases, by extreme intervention of the “Radical” party) by other nations (American TV being a non-insignificant factor, I think), the general impact has been limited in scope and diffusion.

    I do realize the difficulty of Italians in moving to anywhere they might want, although with the part of my comment on “Bologna-Cattolica” I intended to underline that it is easier (at least somewhat) in recent years to find partial solutions (I think that moving is about as easy within Italy as it was in America 15-20 years ago).

    I tend to mentally and morally separate the problems and (even if mostly recognizably legitimate) complaints of residents that have grown up within and haven’t found an escape from a locally imposed situation from those that throw themselves (more or less knowingly) into the middle of (geographically localized) problems imposed by others that already lived there (often for a VERY long time, even centuries) with their already long standing beliefs and mores. Thus, I have great difficulty equating the problems of Muslim medical students in an Anglican dominated England with gay small-town Italians, with whom I find much greater sympathy in their plight.
    Just to be clear, I find quite unfortunate the problems of the local teenagers that have been subjected to a leftist/liberal/radical education (as many of the Italian teachers in the system today seem to espouse these beliefs) which insisted (correctly, but ingenuosly) on the legalities of the national “law” that then find themselves subjected to the conflicting moral code of the local population (including the resident medical staff). It is one of the problems of periods of great flux, for which more often than not the younger elements tend to pay the highest price. I like to think that it is reassuring to think that once in Italy they (the youngins) may have found themselves in an asylum, instead of just extremely embarrassed.

  8. webmaster

    Ah, but you assume I had a choice about moving to Lecco! Like many/most people, I moved where the job is, specifically my husband’s job. We could have continued living in Milan and he could have commuted, but, though I like Milan, the pollution there was killing me.

  9. Rachel

    Surely the medical practitioners in Lecco have as much right to follow their conscience as you do yours. Why should they be forced into facilitating something they believe to be wrong?

  10. webmaster

    If they were in private practice, they could do as they pleased. Because they are public servants paid through MY taxes, I have trouble with the idea that they can “in conscience” refuse me a service to which I am entitled under Italian law. If they made provisions, e.g. ensuring that there was always a doctor on call who would prescribe morning-after birth control or perform an abortion, I would have no trouble with some doctors’ refusal. But the hospital in Lecco seems to be complicit in a conspiracy to let the radicals run the show. That’s just plain wrong.

  11. alan

    This is the power of cultural-conditioning! These people, professionals or not, cannot help it. It is what I call the “Roswell Syndrome”, that is grabbing hold of life-altering beliefs based only on nothing more that heresy and fairytale. That is because when people want something to be so, they will invent the “evidence”. Stretching back 2000 years, it’s the worst affliction every perpetrated on humankind. -Alan

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