Merger with Catholic Hospital Could Deny Women Abortions in Pennsylvania

Abington Memorial Hospital is a major medical center on the eastern side of Montgomery County, Penn. With more than 60 OB/GYNs on staff, the hospital delivers more than 5,000 babies a year.

The obstetricians and gynecologists at Abington also provide abortions, though doctors performed less than 100 of those in each of the last two years, according to the hospital’s medical records. By next year, though, women may no longer be able to receive abortions at Abington. In a proposed merger with a nearby Catholic hospital, Holy Redeemer, women’s reproductive care at the new regional health center will be vastly restricted. Under Catholic doctrine, abortions and sterilizations are considered immoral, and Catholic hospitals must abide by that ethos–even though 27 percent [PDF] of abortion patients say they’re Catholic.

“I’m just outraged by the fact that the hospital I’ve been associated with for so many years made this decision,” says Dr. Philip Rosenfeld, who has been with Abington for 45 years. “I’m a strong believer in women’s rights, including reproductive rights. Women should have the choice.”

Rosenfeld was not consulted before the letter of intent announcing the merger was signed, nor were any other physicians on staff, including Abington’s chair of obstetrics and gynecology, Dr. Joel Polin.

Ultimately, Catholic hospitals aren’t governed by medical boards, says Molly M. Ginty, who explored the effects of Catholic hospital policies in the Spring 2011 print issue of Ms. magazine. Religious leaders create the standards rather than doctors. Wrote Ginty:

Catholic hospitals are required to adhere to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services—archconservative restrictions issued by the 258-member U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Institutions that merge with Catholic hospitals then become subject to those same restrictions.

“If you’re going to make a decision for a secular hospital to merge with a religious-based hospital, you would think that you would be looking at medical issues that would be compromised,” says Dr. Sherry Blumenthal, an obstetrician at Abington. If the merger goes through as planned and limits Abington’s reproductive health services, Blumenthal says she will resign.

She’s not alone. In a staff meeting Wednesday, more than 200 Abington doctors met to discuss the merger, Dr. Rosenfeld says. Not a single one expressed support.

The Montgomery County community, and women’s rights activists around the country have bombarded Abington executives with protests. The “Stop the Abington Merger” Facebook page has attracted more than 36,000 people and garnered more than 1,000 likes. On, more than 4,000 people have signed a petition imploring the hospital’s leadership to rethink their decision.

“Holy Redeemer is a great hospital,” says Rita Poley, an artist in Montgomery County who started the Facebook protest. “It’s great for their community. But for them to take over a secular hospital, it just doesn’t seem right.”

Financially, mergers make sense. As private insurers put pressure on doctors, hospital boards look for ways to secure their institutions for the long term. According to the Abington website, chief executive Laurence Merlis, who will serve as CEO of the joint operation, said the new parent organization will bring “opportunities for quality enhancements and greater efficiencies.”

Merlis has a history of hospital consolidation. As executive vice president of a hospital in New Jersey, he oversaw the fusion of that institution with a Catholic hospital nearby.

“There’s no question that this is all economically driven,” says Dr. Vivian Greenberg, an OB/GYN who has been at Abington for 28 years. “[But] certain principles should be upheld.”

There are free-standing abortion clinics in Philadelphia and Montgomery County, so if the new joint health center is not allowed to perform abortions, women won’t be left stranded. However, most of the abortions Abington doctors perform are due to genetic defects, which are more likely to cause complications during the abortion procedure.

Pennsylvania also has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the books. A woman seeking an abortion must endure a state-produced lecture designed to discourage her, then wait 24 hours before the procedure. Minors are required to secure parental consent. The state also bans public funding for abortions except in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest. And earlier this year, the Republican-controlled legislature introduced the “Women’s Right-To-Know Act,” [PDF] which would require pregnant women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound, with the image shown on a screen nearby, and hear the heartbeat of the fetus.

While public disapproval may not be enough to disband the merger, the more than 200 Abington doctors who oppose it could turn the decision around.

“This transcends just hospital politics,” Dr. Blumenthal said. “This transcends just women’s rights. This is the issue of respect for women, respect for women’s autonomy and battles that we have fought as women.”

Photo of room in Catholic hospital by Patricksmercy via Creative Commons 3.0


Rebecca is an editorial intern for Ms. She is a Seattle native studying journalism and religion at Northwestern University. She has lived and reported in Chicago, London, Washington, D.C. and is now based in Los Angeles.