If pro-choice supporters aren’t vigilant in the months and years ahead, then they could see increasing limitations on women’s access to reproductive services like artificial contraceptives, in-vitro fertilization, sterilization and abortion.
That’s because these are the kinds of services the Catholic church’s Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services prohibits, and a wave of mergers and acquisitions in the hospital industry has seen more and more institutions fall under these directives.
This was the message Rosemary Stasek, co-founder of California Catholics for Free Choice and a Mountain View City Councilmember, delivered at Berkeley’s Florence McDonald Community Room Monday, in a speech sponsored by the Alameda North Chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
There have been more than 150 mergers involving Catholic hospitals in the last decade. Nationally, according to Stasek, one in five people who are treated in hospitals are treated in Catholic hospitals.
The Bay Area has 11 Catholic-affiliated hospital that fall under the directives, including San Francisco’s St. Mary’s Medical Center and St. Francis Memorial Hospital.
Under the directives, these hospitals not only do not provide services like contraceptive and abortions, Stasek said, they also will not provide any information about those services to patients.
In some rural areas, where the Catholic hospital is the only hospital, women’s access to these services has thus be severely impaired, she said. In Gilroy, for example, low-income women must take public transport to San Jose to learn about and receive reproductive services not offered by Gilroy’s St. Louise Regional Medical Center.
Officials at Catholic Health Care West, California’s largest hospital operator, did not return calls for comment.
Stasek said Monday that the Berkeley Community in particular needs to “keep an eye” on Alta Bates Medical Center, its largest health care provider, to make sure it does not come under the directives. Because of a 1999 merger with Summit Medical Center in Oakland, which does fall under the directives, Alta Bates could come under pressure to adhere or break its union with Summit, Stasek said.
But Carolyn Kemp, spokesperson for Alta Bates Medical Center, said the Berkeley Hospital offers the full-range of reproductive services and will continue to do so. In fact, she said, the Alta Bates board of directors was very insistent that Alta Bates be allowed to provide such services under the merger agreement with Summit.
“When [Alta Bates and Summit] merged, that was one of the things that board members were very concerned that we pay attention to,” Kemp said.
Kemp also stressed that most reproductive services are provided at the level of a physician’s office, rather than in the hospital setting.
“It’s between the physician and the individual,” Kemp said. “We’re here to provide the proper environment for whatever decision they make.”
Catherine Trimbur, a Berkeley attorney and NWPC member who came to hear Stasek speak Monday, said it is sometimes difficult to get good information about the level of threat the growth of Catholic hospital systems could pose to a women’s right to choose.
But, at least for the time being, Trimbur isn’t too worried about Berkeley.
“At the moment, things are fine,” Trimbur said. “And it’s my personal belief that things will stay that way, because if anyone tried to impose restrictions [on reproductive care] in Berkeley the community would be in an uproar.”