Over the objections of Maryland women's rights groups, a state panel agreed Wednesday to lease land to a Roman Catholic hospital that does not generally perform abortions or provide birth control.
The proposed Holy Cross Hospital would be the first in three decades to be constructed in fast-growing Montgomery County. The project has drawn controversy because it would be built on public land but follow Catholic doctrine barring some types of care.
"We're disappointed," said NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland Executive Director Jodi Finkelstein. "We would have liked to have seen a different outcome."
Holy Cross Hospital CEO Kevin J. Sexton defended the proposed 93-bed facility by saying the county desperately needs a new hospital and arguing that no single hospital provides every service.
During a lengthy hearing on Wednesday, all three members of the Board of Public Works grilled him on the care that would and would not be allowed — in some instances offering detailed scenarios.
In the end, all voted to support the $8 million ground lease for land on the Montgomery College campus in Germantown.
The board also shot down a set of lease conditions proposed by opponents. They wanted a requirement that some doctors and nurses provide "a full range of reproductive health" to patients. Sexton testified that such additions would cause the $200 million project to collapse.
It was the latest chapter in a nearly three-year-old saga over the hospital that has mostly simmered in the county. Wednesday's vote was the first time that statewide elected officials had weighed in on the matter, and opponents said they would continue trying stall the project on the county level.
Sexton stressed the care that his group provides though two health centers in Maryland. "We do a lot," he said. He calculated that his group, which runs another hospital in Silver Spring, provided free care to over 16,000 women in Montgomery County between 1999 and 2007.
"We serve the most important needs in our community," he said. Patients, he said, are often uninsured and undocumented.
Sexton hinted to the board that the hospital's policies are not as restrictive in practice as opponents believe. "We don't own our physicians," he said when asked how HIV-positive patients would be counseled on condom use.
Also, the group does provide emergency contraception for rape victims in Silver Spring and would do so at the new hospital, said Yolanda Gaskins, a spokeswoman for the hospital.
State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, who is the legislature's voice on the Board of Public Works, said she would "be watching very closely" to see how health care is delivered.
She ran through some hypothetical situations, including how the hospital would treat a woman with a complicated pregnancy who needed an abortion to save her life.
Kopp asked: "Would you let her die?"
Sexton responded: "We have experience with very difficult situations. We save the life we can save."
Such testimony assuaged the board. "My impression is common sense prevails here," Comptroller Peter Franchot said shortly before supporting the measure. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown presided over the meeting because Gov. Martin O'Malley was in Chicago for a Democratic Governors Association meeting.
Abortion-rights advocates said they remained unconvinced. Jill Morrison, senior counsel to the National Women's Law Center, said the way that religious directives are interpreted changes based on the whims of the local bishops.
She pointed to an Arizona case in which a nun was punished for agreeing to provide an emergency abortion to save the life of a mother at a Catholic hospital. "When the hierarchy changes, the rules on health care also change," Morrison said.
She also said that "constitutional issues" are raised by the project, asking whether it is appropriate to have state-funded Montgomery College "appear to be endorsing" religiously influenced care. Morrison would not say whether her group plans a lawsuit along those lines.
The president of Montgomery College argued strongly for the project, saying it would beef up the college's life sciences offerings. It will anchor a 40-acre science and technology park, and will allow the college to offer 64 new slots for nurses doing clinical training.
DeRionne Pollard, the college president, noted that the college nursing program already has a relationship with Holy Cross. Students now must travel to Silver Spring for their clinical rotations, but the new hospital would offer a much shorter commute for some.
In January, the state Health Care Commission approved the project, rejecting a plan put forward by the competing Adventist HealthCare.
The Adventist group had the backing of dozen General Assembly members who believed that a hospital on public land should "provide a full array of healthcare services."
Construction is due to start this fall and be completed by 2014.