Letters & Op-Eds 2000

Merger Emergency


Imagine you are a poor pregnant woman in a remote area of Northern California. You already have as many children as you want-or can provide for-and decide that following the birth of this child, you want your tubes tied. This procedure, known as a tubal ligation, is the most popular form of birth control in the United States. It is commonly performed right after delivery so that the woman doesn’t have to come back to the hospital for a second surgical procedure.

Now, imagine when you tell your doctor your decision, he tells you the only hospital in your area no longer allows this common procedure. You will have to go at least 45 minutes away over mountainous, rural roads to get it. And you will either have to go to this faraway hospital to deliver your baby and have the sterilization or have the baby at your local hospital and then make the trip for the second procedure. Not very good options, are they?

For more and more women, these are the only options they are being left with after their local hospital is taken over by a Catholic hospital. Catholic religious directives ban a whole host of common reproductive health care services, including tubal ligations, vasectomies, contraceptives and contraceptive counseling–even education about condoms to prevent AIDS–and fertility treatments.

According to our research at Catholics for a Free Choice, there were 132 mergers between Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals from 1994 to 1999. We found that reproductive health care was reduced or eliminated in approximately half. Today there are 586 Catholic hospitals in the U.S., up over seven percent from 542 in 1998.

We also found how Catholic hospitals are consolidating their power by aligning in powerful regional health care systems. Eight of the nation’s 13 largest health systems are Catholic. The $6 billion Ascension Health system, created last year by the merger of two Catholic systems, is now the nation’s largest non-profit health care system with 73 hospitals.

These systems can become the dominant health care provider for an entire area. Catholic Healthcare West is now the largest operator of hospitals in California, running 46 hospitals, 18 of which were secular. The system has nearly quadrupled since 1986, when it consisted of just 12 hospitals. One of the hospitals taken over, the former South Valley Regional Hospital in Gilroy, CA, performed 400 tubal ligations annually, representing nearly 20 percent of all deliveries. Now it performs none. Women who want the procedure must go at least 45 minutes away over winding, mountainous roads. This is especially problematic for low-income women–of which the area has many–who don’t have their own transportation, as public transportation is scarce.

And a recent survey by Catholics for a Free Choice found that 82 percent of Catholic hospitals refuse to provide emergency contraception, even to women who have been raped. And only 22 percent of those hospitals will provide a useful referral to women.

Catholic hospitals take over previously secular hospitals and deny women essential reproductive health services. Many also fail to provide emergency contraception to women who have been raped.

Does this sound unfair? There are some things you can do. Contact your local and national legislators and make your concern over this issue known.

More information on Catholic hospital mergers is available in our latest report,Catholic Health Restrictions Updated. The report can be ordered by calling (202) 986-6093 or click here.

This article appeared in the Fall 2000 edition of ZPG Reporter.

Catholics for Choice