Sunday, February 8, 2009

Catholics: Bury FOCA or pay consequences

Catholics: Bury FOCA or pay consequences

February 8, 2009

It sounds almost unthinkable: Roman Catholic hospitals like Provena Saint Joseph in Elgin and St. Alexius in Hoffman Estates closing down their obstetrics units completely. Yet that's what Roman Catholic leaders threaten to do if the long-discussed Freedom of Choice Act is passed into law and if -- even Catholic officials admit, a big if -- courts rule that its provisions prevent a hospital OB unit or an obstetrician from refusing to allow abortions.

But that's all much ado about nothing, backers of the FOCA respond. For one thing, they point out, no FOCA bill has even been introduced into the current Congress after previous efforts to pass the law in 2004 and 2007 died in committee.

Susan Emery, of Prospect Heights, gives her 10-month-old daughter, Anna, a drink while participating in an abortion protest at Route 25 and 68 in 2001. Citizens for a Pro-Life Society conducted its annual Face the Truth Pro-Life Tour by distributing literature to motorists and passersby.

For another thing, backers say, the law probably would not require any hospital that felt morally opposed to abortions to start allowing them now.

Partly to keep events from coming to such a crisis, Catholic congregations all over the United States are engaging over the past three weeks in a lobbying campaign, trying to persuade Congress not to pass FOCA. The proposed law would codify a woman's right to choose an abortion.
Would they close?
Would the church's Rockford Diocese, which includes Kane County, or even the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, have the power to shut down local obstetrics units if the most-feared ramifications of FOCA became reality?

The answer seems to be, "Under the letter of the law, no. But in practice, yes."

"Bishop Thomas Paprocki (the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago) said that if this bill passes, it could mean discontinuing all obstetrics services at Catholic hospitals," Patricia Pitkus Bainbridge, the "respect life director" for the Rockford Diocese, said.

"We can't violate our conscience" by allowing abortions in a Catholic hospital, Bainbridge said. "Our teaching is very clear."

Neither Provena Saint Joseph nor St. Alexius is directly owned or operated by the mother church. The Elgin hospital is part of the six-hospital Provena Health System and is controlled by three orders of Catholic nuns. The Hoffman Estates hospital is operated by an order of monks, the Alexian Brothers.

Bainbridge said it is possible these orders could decide to keep operating a hospital even if it were forced legally to allow abortions -- or to allow other women's reproductive services now banned in Catholic hospitals, such as tubal ligations to render a woman sterile.

"But I would be shocked if that happened," she said. "Our teaching on these issues is very clear."

Asked for an opinion, Provena's leaders said they agree with a statement made by the nationwide Catholic Health Association that states: "We expect that, even if this bad legislation were to pass, we would not be forced to participate (in abortions), and we would fight for that. But even with strong conscience protection in the legislation, we still oppose the bill."

"We will protect Catholic health care in this country without compromising our position on abortion ... As people of faith, the first thing we are called to do is to redouble our efforts to be sure pregnant women do not see abortion as their only option."

Those who back FOCA say the fuss is unwarranted.

Even if FOCA is passed, "unless they're seeing some kind of language that pro-choice groups aren't seeing, I fail to understand what they're so concerned about," Pam Sutherland, legislative director of Planned Parenthood for Illinois, said. "The only thing this act would do is to codify into law the Roe vs. Wade decision. And under that, Catholic hospitals and doctors have never been required to perform an abortion."
Filling the gap
If the Catholic OB units would close, would secular hospitals be able to fill the gap?

In Elgin, the answer is likely "yes."

"That's speculating on a scenario that's not the case yet," Sherman Hospital spokesman Josh McColough said. But Provena Saint Joseph spokeswoman Heather Gates said virtually all of the 12 obstetricians who can deliver babies at Provena also are on the staff at Sherman. The obstetrics departments at both Sherman and Provena are rated as Level II-Plus facilities. And the relative scale of the two operations -- Sherman already delivers about four times as many babies as Provena -- suggest that adding Provena's 25 percent to Sherman's would not create a massive overload.

St. Alexius delivers about the same number of babies per year as Sherman, so whether it could pass all that business on to Sherman is less clear. However, because of St. Alexius's location, patients would probably shift to other suburban hospitals as well as to Sherman.

At Delnor Hospital in Geneva, spokeswoman Deb Danner said none of Delnor's doctors are also on the staff at either Provena Saint Joseph or Sherman. But "when I asked the head of the department whether we could absorb more delivery patients, she said, 'Bring 'em on,'" Danner said.

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