Embattled Hospital to Leave Catholic Consortium
For only the second time in
history, community opposition has forced a public hospital to separate from a
merger involving hospitals controlled by the Roman Catholic Church. On December
31, 2000, Bayfront Hospital of St. Petersburg, Florida, will leave the Baycare
Health System, a network of Tampa Bay hospitals that includes eight public and
Catholic facilities. (The Bayfront controversy was the subject of a special
section in the Winter 2000-2001 issue of Free
Inquiry, featuring articles by
local activist Sandy Oestreich and FI
editor Tom Flynn.)
Bayfront, historically St.
Petersburg’s only indigent-care public healthcare facility, merged into
BayCare Health System in 1997 in order to benefit from centralized purchasing
and administration. At that time Bayfront officials had reassured the St.
Petersburg City Council that the services offered at Bayfront, including
elective abortions, would not change. But in 1999, media investigations revealed
that Bayfront was no longer offering abortions. Indeed, it was conforming to the
70-plus regulations contained in the Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs) for
Catholic Health Care Services established by the National Conference of Catholic
Bishops. In one case, Baycare refused a therapeutic abortion to a woman whose
fetus was nonviable, forcing her to carry her doomed pregnancy to term.
Community outrage led the City
of St. Petersburg to file suit in 2000, seeking to force Bayfront’s withdrawal
from the consortium. The city charged that Bayfront’s cooperation with
Catholic directives violated the hospital’s lease and involved the city in an
unconstitutional breach of the separation of church and state. The suit involved
legal gray areas; prior to the merger Bayfront was actually operated by a
private nonprofit organization, though the city owned the land and most of the
buildings in the hospital complex. After attempted settlements fell through,
BayCare Health Systems voted to expel Bayfront from the consortium. The
separation will become effective on December 31, 2000.
Advocates of abortion rights and
church-state separation hailed the outcome, only the second time a U.S. public
hospital has been forced to exit a Catholic-public hospital consortium.
Opponents say that the economic pressures that made merger imperative for
Bayfront in 1997 continue, and question whether the hospital can remain viable
on its own.
“We hope Bayfront will remain
viable and public,” said Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry. “But the larger principle here is whether healthcare
facilities built and operated with tax dollars will continue to be allowed to
enter into mergers that restrict the types of care they can offer to those
acceptable to Roman Catholic doctrine.” Mergers in which public hospitals are
absorbed have now made the Roman Catholic Church the nation’s largest provider
of hospital care.
Free Inquiry, published quarterly
by the Council for Secular Humanism, is the
nation’s largest-circulation magazine for and about secular humanists and
other Americans who live without religion.