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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.

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