Abington Memorial Hospital and Holy Redeemer: Putting Women’s Health at Risk by Imposing Religious Doctrine on Patients

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and vasectomies, which are typically prohibited by Catholic doctrine, but it is unknown if the services could be withdrawn at any time.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.

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8 Responses to Abington Memorial Hospital and Holy Redeemer: Putting Women’s Health at Risk by Imposing Religious Doctrine on Patients

  1. Lyndon says:

    Susan is wrong about DNRs and Catholic hospitals; in fact, Catholic hospitals are explicitly prohibited from following patients’ instructions where those instructions conflict with Catholic doctrine. Read the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” again. Directive 24 plainly states: “The institution, however, will not honor an advance directive that is contrary to Catholic teaching.” Directive 28 says: “The free and informed health care decision of the person or the person’s surrogate is to be followed so long as it does not contradict Catholic principles.” If you go to a Catholic hospital, you leave your DNR instructions at the door; they’re in charge, not you, not your surrogate, not your doctor.

    Some of the Catholic directives are particularly cruel in this regard. Directive 61 specifically prohibits doctors in Catholic hospitals from treating terminal patients with appropriate levels of pain medications: “Patients experiencing suffering that cannot be alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering.”

  2. E says:

    Susan, all religions and beliefs are not respected, I am an atheist and I do not believe in the same restrictions Catholics do and I can assure you my beliefs (a womans right to choose) are NOT respected in Catholic hospitals. I have no problem with Catholic hospitals, but I do when they impose their belief system on a non-secular hospital. If someone wants to be treated in a religious facility they should have that right just as much as I have a right to not want to be treated in one.
    I am honestly dumbfounded that you can say woman’s care will not truly be jeopardized, when all this merge would do is take away a woman’s medical option thus potentially jeopardizing a woman’s health.
    This isn’t anxiety about a new change, it’s a change the community and most doctors do not want. According to reports, no physicians on staff, including Abington’s chair of obstetrics and gynecology, Dr. Joel Polin were consulted before the letter of intent announcing the merger was signed. Regardless of all the great things a merge might do, the community doesn’t want religious restrictions on our healthcare. Regardless of the funding, we don’t want to loose our freedom (a fundamental right protected by the United States Constitution). I’m looking at the entire picture and in my opinion (as well as many other) it’s not worth it. I don’t see how this could make us stronger when we’re putting religious restrictions before health. If anything I believe it’s a step backward.
    I think it’s wonderful that you see this as a good thing, I wish I could too. However that is why there are (and should remain) religious and non-religious hospitals, so no one has to feel they cannot get the care they need due to religious or non-religious beliefs.

  3. Patty Quinn says:

    Susan, If I’m mistaken about the policy AMH would have under this merger with HR regarding DNR and DNI directives, then I’ll admit that. I’ll look into it further. But this merger is indefensible. And as for your saying “[w]e all know women’s care will not truly be jeopardized,” physicians at AMH are expressing grave warnings that it will be.

  4. Susan says:

    I am not sure where the thought of catholic hospitals not honoring DNR and directed care statuses came from. It is simply not true. As a mater or fact, it is part of the admission history and followed up on frequently when appropriate. Futile cases have been taken to the ethics committee in attempt to provide compassion & peace to the patient in the best manor possible. Catholic hospitals also have hospice units for the continum of care. It has been my experience they put great effort into treating the patient as a whole with respect, as any other institution. All regions and beliefs are respected. It is part of the annual education for staff. There are crosses & stars on the walls, as well as rabbi’s, priests and pastoral care present and also on call. Bread is delivered every Friday to their Jewish ‘family’ whether they can eat or not. A well wish, a prayer a helping hand is all welcome regardless the religious orientation.
    As for reproductive care and eliminating ‘extra’ embryo’s, perhaps it is a good habit to not implant more than can be carried in an optimal condition. Wasn’t that lesson learned after the octagon mother produced 8 babies knowing their quality of life is in jeopardy. Birth control and vasectomy’s can also be obtained.
    Health care has changed. Payments from insurance companies and individuals are scant. Before you fight to protest, learn ALL the facts. Not just the superficial ones. We all know women’s care will not truly be jeopardized. Anxiety regarding change is simply contagious.
    Look at the main line health system. They monopolize there & provide incredible fluent care with the bonus of having insurance negotiating leverage which in the end is what gives us our care!!
    Think on it. Look outside the box. Change is scary, not always fully desirable, but sometimes it makes us stronger.
    Best Wishes for all involved!!

    • Lisa K says:

      “Before you fight to protest, learn ALL the facts. Not just the superficial ones. We all know women’s care will not truly be jeopardized.”

      Wow. How about you tell that to a woman who has been raped and chooses to have an abortion? I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t think that the fact of her pregnancy is superficial.

  5. Pingback: REVIEW: Abington Docs Speak Up On Holy Redeemer Merger; Women's Health at Risk | Physicians News

  6. Lisa K says:

    There is also a petition you can sign: https://www.change.org/petitions/the-leadership-of-abington-memorial-hospital-stop-the-merger-with-holy-redeemer-health-system#. We have over 4000 signatures and would love more. We will be presenting this petition to the leadership of AMH.

  7. Patty Quinn says:

    Thank you for helping to keep the area’s women informed about this merger. I’d like to add that the ramifications go beyond robbing women of reproductive health care, which is bad enough. This merger also affects anyone with an advance directive including DNR and DNI orders. With this merger, Abington Memorial Hospital no longer will honor such advanced directives because it violates Catholic Church doctrine. If you are in the area of AMH and you need to be rushed to a hospital, you’ll be taken to AMH. You have no say in the matter. And if your advanced directive includes DNR and DNI provisions, AMH will not honor them.

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