Reproductive Rights at Risk in States and Communities

by Rebecca Farmer, Communications Associate

At the beginning of the year 2000, reproductive rights are still under relentless attack. The ever-growing list of obstacles includes Catholic hospital mergers which are threatening women's access to abortion and contraception, and a new Louisiana law allowing abortion to be considered a personal injury.

Hospital Mergers Reduce Services to Women

Community hospitals are increasingly under strain to stay afloat economically. Full mergers, joint ventures and affiliations are often the only option to keep such hospitals up and running. Merging or affiliating with another health organization may seem to be a positive step in such circumstances. But this is not necessarily true when reduced reproductive health services are the cost of preserving these hospitals.

Catholic faith-based hospitals adhere to doctrines of the church which ban abortion, contraception and even infertility services such as in-vitro fertilization. Catholic hospital practices on administering the morning after pill are inconsistent. A 1999 Catholics for a Free Choice report found that 82 percent of Catholic hospitals do not provide emergency contraception to survivors of rape and 31 percent of those refused even to provide a referral.

Upon merging with a Catholic hospital, a secular hospital may be required to take on these restrictions. In small communities, mergers can create a monopoly of health facilities run on Catholic doctrine, leaving women with no access to birth control or abortion.

"When Catholic hospitals play God, the results are detrimental to women's health," said NOW President Patricia Ireland. "Women's lives are at stake when access to reproductive health services are limited or denied."

In some communities reproductive health services are an unequivocal casualty of merger negotiations between Catholic and secular hospitals. Elsewhere, patients must rely on "don't ask, don't tell" policies, under which doctors may provide banned reproductive health services so long as no one in authority finds out.

Community Activism Needed

Activists across the country have protested the imposition of a single religious perspective on community health care, helping salvage abortion and contraception from merger talks in a number of areas.

Pinellas NOW helped convince the city of St. Petersburg, Fla., to file a lawsuit against the local public hospital for violation of separation of church and state. If the effort is successful, this will be only the second incidence in the country of overthrowing Catholic directives at a community hospital. Sandy Oestreich, president of Pinellas NOW, and other activists wrote letters, collected petitions and regularly attended City Council meetings until the city filed the lawsuit in late March 2000.

"Beware," Oestreich said. "A Catholic takeover of your hospital may be right around the corner. People are not noticing until it's too late. And the Catholic Church will not back down once entrenched."

Oestreich recommends that feminists check out their community hospital newsletters and keep an eye out for mentions of mergers and affiliations in newspaper business sections. "Make sure they're not planning a merger that will change your life forever," she said.

For more information on Catholic hospital mergers visit or call 518-436-8408 and ask for the Merger Watch Project.

Abortion Access At Stake in Louisiana

In another dangerous twist, the state of Louisiana enacted a statute which allows women to sue their abortion providers in civil court. The 1997 law, which is currently under challenge in the courts, allows a woman who has an abortion to seek unlimited damages from the provider for up to ten years following the procedure. The provider can be liable despite having obtained fully informed consent. With the threat of lawsuit so imminent, many Louisiana doctors may stop performing abortions if the law is upheld.

The debate around this tort law concerns whether it places an undue burden on Louisiana women's right to abortion and if the statute's vague language conclusively identifies what a physician must do to avoid liability. Without a clear provision on what constitutes informed consent between a woman and her doctor, compliance with the law is nearly impossible. Louisiana clinics and physicians have signaled that this law would drastically reduce the number of providers available to women in the state.

In February 1999, the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (CRLP) argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that the law is unconstitutional. A panel of three Fifth Circuit judges struck down the civil liability law last year, but have since called for a hearing by the entire Fifth Circuit. This hearing is scheduled for May and a decision is expected this summer.

"Louisiana's civil liability law is just the latest attempt by the state legislature to make abortion more difficult, if not impossible to obtain," said Patricia Smith, staff attorney with CRLP. "The law sets an invisible standard that the physician must meet, creating a climate in which no abortion provider can possibly operate."

Over the last four years, U.S. states have enacted an increasing number of anti-abortion rights measures, making the states as important a battleground for reproductive rights as the Supreme Court and the federal government. In 1999 alone, states introduced 439 measures and enacted 70 - nearly tripling the number enacted in 1995.

"Anti-abortion forces will throw up any roadblock they can to deny women their reproductive rights. When they can't keep women from obtaining abortions through restrictions such as procedure bans or waiting periods, they will attempt to scare doctors away from treating them," said Ireland. "If we don't get out and vote for feminist candidates this election season, we can expect a full assault on our reproductive freedom to follow."

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