Acton Commentary

Ominous Partnership for Public Health?


With the Christian mandate to care for the sick and the suffering, the faith community has long been at the forefront in caring for the physical and spiritual health of their fellow human beings. Religious hospitals, in particular, have made immense contributions to American healthcare, and they should be commended for their commitment to excellence as they attend to the needs of the sick, the dying, and the suffering. In the last few years, however, a handful of key religiously founded healthcare groups have allied with the radical environmental agenda by joining forces with a group known as Heath Care Without Harm (HCWH), a radical environmental organization that has attempted to cloak itself in “religious legitimacy” through actively seeking partnerships in the faith community. Such a dangerous partnership has blurred the line between quality pastoral healthcare and secular political advocacy.

Health Care Without Harm, founded in 1996, was originally an environmental campaign led by groups such as Greenpeace and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. One part of HCWH's mission was based on the fear that the incineration of medical waste, and especially PVC plastics, would release the carcinogenic byproduct, dioxin, into the environment at unacceptably high levels. Health Care Without Harm's humble beginnings gave way to an aggressive coalition of environmental, healthcare, and religious groups numbering in the hundreds. They are determined to coerce hospitals and their purchasing organizations to abandon the technically innovative and life-saving medical products that have been the choice of numerous healthcare professionals for decades.

Fundamental to understanding the nature of the HCWH movement is the necessity of digging through its amorphous existence. On its Web site, HCWH describes itself as “a broad based international campaign to address the environmental impacts of health care without compromising worker safety and patient care.” The stated concern of HCWH is a desire to reduce dioxin emissions in the disposal of certain medical products. In this, HCWH has largely been successful. The number of medical waste incinerators nationwide is rapidly declining. In Michigan for example, while a small number of commercial waste incinerators continue to operate, there are no private medical waste incinerators in operation.

In reality, however, HCWH's activism embraces a far wider and more pernicious agenda than just air pollution. Medical products safety and the alleged negative health effects of certain essential medical products on patients occupies much of their current agenda. This is only thinly veiled corporate activism masquerading as deep concern for the environment and patient well-being.

Given the dangers that the HCWH agenda poses to public health and quality medical treatment, a serious question presents itself: What really drives HCWH's campaign against technically innovative and life-saving medical technologies? If product safety were the real issue, then the arguments they present are certainly very, very weak. And why would a campaign addressing patient safety be predominately run by an environmental group more interested in political activism? No, this is not about product safety—it is about advancing a dubious and dangerous environmental agenda at the expense of quality healthcare.

Sadly, the mission of HCWH, which at its foundation is at odds with core religious and philosophical truths about the dignity of man, has proved quite attractive to religious groups. For example, Catholic Health Care West (CHCW) has signed on as a member organization in HCWH. Furthermore, CHCW is actively pursuing the phase-out of PVC medical technology in all of its member hospitals. In one of the biggest victories for HCWH, the nation's leading producer of intravenous fluid bags, Baxter International, Inc., entered a “memorandum of understanding” with three shareholder groups, two of which are Catholic (the Retirement Plans for the Employees of the Sisters of Mercy Regional Community of Detroit and the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, OH). Baxter noted that “in instances where the overall performance and safety of another material is proven superior to PVC and regulatory clearance is obtained, Baxter will offer an alternative.” Baxter has not disowned PVC technology, by any means, but the move indicates how influential the alliance between key religious groups and HCWH has become. This type of “victory” bodes ominously for public health and safety.

HCWH is a movement that seems intent on crippling those responsible for medical technological innovation. This anti-human conviction serves to deny healthcare professionals and patients a time-tested and life-saving product. As a result, the ongoing danger that HCWH poses to quality healthcare, patient choice, and technological innovation deserves careful monitoring.