Dell Medical School faces religious controversy

Christine Ayala

Although UT’s Dell Medical School is years from being up and running, its policies and procedures with potential partners are already under scrutiny. 

Because of Seton Healthcare Family’s religious affiliation, its partners, including the Dell Medical School, are expected to abide by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. These directives impact medical procedures that relate to family planning, women’s health and end-of-life care. Critics of Seton have voiced concerns that in the future the Dell Medical School might operate under a similar agreement, but no concrete agreement has been made yet. 

The medical school has a memorandum of understanding with Seton indicating that the Catholic hospital will be the main training hospital. The official contract between the two has not been set, and Seton will not be the only partner the Dell Medical School will use in Austin.

The advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State wrote to Seton in July, opposing Seton’s influence on government agencies such as Central Health. The nonprofit organization responds to citizen complaints regarding violations of separation of church and state.

Ian Smith, attorney for Americans United, said that Central Health’s agreement requires a government entity and its employees to follow Catholic religious law, which the government cannot legally do.

“It is easier to conceptualize if say Seton was not a Catholic organization but was a Muslim organization, and what the government was agreeing to do was follow Sharia Law and its
administration as a hospital,” Smith said. “People seem to find more issue with that [than] when it is Catholic dogma.”

Smith said although there is no agreement between the medical school and Seton to review, the organization is anticipating violations. It is likely Dell Medical School faculty would be required to have admitting privileges or be employees at Seton, which would place these government employees under Catholic ethical guidelines.

“Seton is not going to allow the University of Texas to come in there without agreeing to abide by the religious directives,” Smith said.

Seton spokeswoman Adrienne Lallo said because medical students only observe, they wouldn’t be performing any act that would hold them to the Catholic guidelines. Medical residents, however, can provide prescriptions and perform procedures under the supervision of experienced doctors. Residents of the Dell Medical School would only have to abide by Seton's religious directives when practicing in a Seton health care facility. 

Smith said this would not eliminate the violation of church and state caused by Seton. For Seton’s agreement to be lawful, government entities working with Seton could agree to secular services without an agreement to religious practices, Smith said.

Dell Medical School spokesman Robert Cullick said UT System medical residents from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center are already using Seton facilities for training. 

The policies that would be in place at the new medical school, however, would be the same as those in place in the other UT System medical branches.

Cullick said because the policies are limited to Seton facilities, UT medical students will still complete training in areas of health care Catholic ethics do not allow, including abortion, family planning and end-of-life care, at other partnered facilities.

Correction: A previous version of this article reported that Central Health, a Seton partner, was subject to Seton’s religious directives. The article also reported that residents could not perform procedures in Seton facilities. Residents at the Dell Medical School are only subject to religious directives when they are practicing in a Seton health care facility.