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Swedish Gobbles Providence
What will happen to abortion services?

by Michelle Degen

Swedish Medical Center, a secular facility, is negotiating a purchase Providence Medical Center, a Catholic institution. The largest hospital in the state of Washington, Swedish, is set to acquire the Providence Seattle Medical Center, Providence's Jefferson Medical Tower, and the nine Providence clinics throughout King County. The two sides hope to finalize the sale by the end of June.

Providence has been in financial trouble for the past four years, losing $19 million just last year, so the sale looks like a good deal for the beleaguered institution. However, the transaction must first be approved by the Vatican, as well as state and federal officials.

Despite the change of identity, those negotiating the deal claim that both facilities will continue to operate as usual--except in the area of abortion access. The sale cannot go through without the Pope’s approval, and the Pope will approve the sale only under the condition that Swedish cease to provide elective abortions to the community.

Swedish has, until now, performed both elective and non-elective abortions. Elective abortions are those in which a woman chooses to terminate the pregnancy because she does not want to have a baby. Non-elective abortions are pregnancies that are terminated because a woman's health is at risk. Providence has demanded that Swedish refrain from providing elective abortions, and Swedish has more or less agreed to this demand. Swedish will own Providence, Providence will no longer be a Catholic institution, and Swedish will not convert to a Catholic institution. Yet Swedish will stop performing elective abortions.

Swedish's decision is part of a trend affecting women nationwide. Abortion services in hospital settings are becoming scarcer as secular hospitals merge with Catholic-managed hospitals.

Nancy Sapiro of the Northwest Women’s Law Center, pointed out that nationwide, Catholic hospitals have been buying out secular ones, and then ending abortion services as the new owners. It is very uncommon for the hospital that is being sold to dictate policy to the buyers, which is what Swedish is allowing.

Dr. Nancy Auer, medical director at Swedish, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that agreeing to Providence's demand will “not make much of a difference since this is primarily done in the out-patient setting in an office." However, Swedish currently provides abortion services to women at risk for health complications, such as problems with blood-clotting. These women must rely on hospitals, not out-patient clinics, for abortion services.

According to the Seattle Times, Swedish performed only about 50 such procedures during the past year. However, Swedish doesn’t have exact figures on how many elective abortions they provide annually, since they are provided by various departments.

With net revenues around $500 million in 1999, the decision to stop providing elective abortions, at a cost of $500 per procedure, will not make much of a financial difference to Swedish. But when the largest medical facility in Washington no longer provides abortions, it will make a difference to the women of this region.

Research by the Alan Guttmacher Institute reveals that as a result of shrinking access to abortion providers, "residents of rural Washington had to travel farther and more frequently to urban and out-of-state providers for abortions and delayed the procedure until later stages of pregnancy." The Institute found that "rural women were also more likely to obtain later abortions than urban women.” The proportion of later abortions for rural women doubled during the 90s.

Shrinking access to abortions makes a difference to pregnant girls and women who, without access to legal abortions, are forced to seek unsafe abortions, who abandon or kill their newborns or even, in their desperation, kill themselves. And this decision makes a difference to women who come to Seattle from Alaska, Oregon, and other states, where abortion access is strictly limited after the first trimester. Swedish's decision will, at the very least, make a difference to the more than 50 women it won't be there for in 2000 as it was in 1999. Swedish Medical Center, the largest medical center here in Washington, is participating in the erosion of a woman's right to choose.

Richard Peterson, the chief executive officer at Swedish, told the Times that "we knew this was going to be a major concern to the community." Yet the officials are charging full speed ahead with the decision--despite both hospitals’ claim that "reaching out to meet community needs" is one of their goals.

Peterson said that both the Swedish and Providence facilities will "provide tubal ligations, vasectomies, contraception and the morning-after pill.” These services are also prohibited in the Catholic tradition. Officials excuse the contradiction by pointing out that Providence, which will continue to operate in other parts of the state, won't benefit economically from such services, or anything else prohibited by the ethical and religious directives of the Catholic church.

If Swedish can continue to provide these services, even though they conflict with Catholic "ethics," why is Swedish so willing to toss out services for elective abortions? They could continue to provide abortions, as they always have, under the same conditions: abortions could also be performed without Providence benefiting economically from the procedures. Aren’t any of them concerned about the dubious ethics of forcing a woman to become a mother, or seek an unsafe abortion, because legal abortion has become too difficult to obtain?

The Swedish/Providence arrangement reflects the age-old practice of excluding women's rights and concerns. It is not at all surprising that no other procedure or service will change as a result of this merger. However, it is surprising, as well as "absolutely ridiculous and obscene that a religious organization can dictate medical practices to the entire community of Seattle," as Karen Cooper of NARAL told the Times.

Women still are forced to battle the conservative right wing for our rights. Now we must also address these mergers that make allies out of former competitors, resulting in restricted access to crucial services. Which services remain available will continue to be dictated to us by those in positions of power, and in this case, they happen to be individuals who fail to value women’s needs.

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