Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney
UPDATE: On Wednesday, July 18, 2012, Abington Health and Holy Redeemer Health Systems announced that they have abandoned their plan to merge.
In late June 2012, Lawrence Merlis, president and CEO of Abington Health System, and Michael Laign, president and CEO of Holy Redeemer Health System announced a joint venture between the two suburban Philadelphia systems with the goal of creating a regional health system by the spring of 2013. The result will be a partnership between a secular hospital system and a Catholic system, a partnership that will dilute the quality of care women across the region have come to expect from Abington Health’s facilities. In particular, the partnership will force Abington to stop providing comprehensive reproductive healthcare for women, thereby putting women’s lives at risk.
In 2011, Abington performed 64 abortions, primarily for women with high risk pregnancies that compromised their health. For women with such high risk pregnancies, abortion can be a life-saving procedure. For other women, abortion terminates non-viable pregnancies, possibly due to fetal abnormalities or placental problems. For all women, regardless of the reasons behind needing the procedure, it is a fundamental right protected by the United States Constitution, and it should be a choice that is available at a hospital they trust.
Women who receive their gynecologic and obstetric care from Abington Health, which is one of the largest maternity care providers in the Commonwealth, will have to find abortion services elsewhere. Hospital officials have not commented on whether Abington will continue to perform selective reduction, a process after infertility treatments where the number of embryos is reduced to increase the woman’s chances of carrying a pregnancy to term, which is typically banned at Catholic hospitals. The hospital claims that it will continue to perform contraceptive services and counseling, such as tubal ligations and vasectomies, which are typically prohibited by Catholic doctrine, but it is unknown if the services could be withdrawn at any time.
Thus, the full impact of the imposition of Catholic doctrine on Abington’s medical services, if the joint venture goes through, remains to be seen. Catholic health systems are slowly monopolizing health care across the country. As of 2011, approximately one-fifth of all hospital admissions in the United States and between 10 and 20 percent of admissions in Pennsylvania are to Catholic hospitals. These systems impose their religious beliefs, contained in the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,” on patients of all backgrounds and faiths, interfering with the medical practitioner-patient relationship. In 2010, the Catholic Church made its position on women’s health very clear when it excommunicated a nun serving as a hospital administrator for permitting doctors to perform an abortion to save the pregnant women’s life.
The result of this policy in practice could be that women in need of abortion, possibly needed to save their lives, may have a delay in treatment or may require a transfer while they are unstable to a non-Catholic hospital. Abington may thus become vulnerable to medical malpractice lawsuits and claims for violations of the Federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) for putting religious doctrine before women’s health. The imposition of Catholic Directives on patient care may cause experienced staff to leave the hospital, and it may also cause patients in the area to seek maternity and other care elsewhere.
Opposition to Abington’s partnership with Holy Redeemer is growing. Rabbis from congregations in the area have written a letter to Abington’s Lawrence Merlis, protesting the planned joint venture. A Facebook group, Stop the Abington Hospital Merger, has also formed.
To learn more about the dangers of receiving reproductive health care at Catholic-affiliated hospitals, see the prior posts on this blog, “Patients Are Denied Health Care on Ideological Grounds” and “Nun Excommunicated from Catholic Church for Saving Woman’s Life” and WLP’s 2012 report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women.