BALTIMORE-area residents should be gravely concerned about merger talks between the Greater Baltimore Medical Center and St. Joseph Medical Center, especially in light of four other proposed or announced mergers in Maryland involving Roman Catholic hospitals. Such alliances would significantly reduce the number of centers providing comprehensive medical services for women.
Already, GBMC officials have said no elective abortions would be performed after such a merger, but tubal ligations and in-vitro fertilizations would continue.
However, even the assurance that the latter service would be offered is uncertain, considering that all Catholic hospitals are governed by a single, unifying set of religious principles that spell out which health services can be provided based on whether they are deemed "morally and spiritually harmful." Under these rules, contraception, sterilization, abortion and infertility services are not permitted.
Questions and community unease surround other secular and religious hospital mergers in Maryland, including Memorial and Sacred Heart in Cumberland, Mercy and North Arundel, and Upper Chesapeake Health System and St. Joseph Medical Center in Harford County.
For instance, in a newspaper article about the merger of Upper Chesapeake and St. Joseph, Upper Chesapeake's president said the new combined hospital would not be required to sign or otherwise follow religious directives.
According to the article, sterilization procedures such as vasectomies and tubal ligations would continue to be performed. However, in a letter to its participating physicians, Upper Chesapeake states that the "partnership will respect the ethical and religious directives of the Catholic Church."
Such apparent contradictions lead many in Baltimore to wonder whether the loss of abortion services would be just the beginning of an erosion in other services. Why should GBMC's community have to accept the loss of access to abortion services? Abortion is legal. For those women, safe, private and legal health care services should not be denied.
If economics is critical to the survival of the two hospitals, creative solutions exist that have worked in other communities.
In Port Jefferson, N.Y., Catholic-operated St. Charles Hospital and nonsectarian John T. Mather Hospital formed a joint venture instead of merging. Services the Catholic hospital objected to were excluded from the agreement. Each hospital maintains its original identity, mission and board of directors.
As a result, Mather Hospital continues to perform abortions.
In the GBMC-St. Joseph proposed merger, the public needs to know what safeguards would be put in place to guarantee the continuation of women's services over the long term.
Maintaining GBMC's position at the forefront of women's services takes an economic commitment of technological, financial and human resources, which a heavy Roman Catholic board presence would be unlikely to support.
Instead of halting services, they could simply be allowed to dwindle.
Patricia Gongloff is interim executive director of Planned Parenthood of Maryland.
Pub Date: 3/25/98