Teaming of Swedish, Providence raises issues over abortion, women’s health

  • By Sharon Salyer Herald Writer
  • Sunday, October 23, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

The debate over abortion and other women’s reproductive issues triggered by the proposed partnership between two of Western Washington’s largest health care groups echo some of the same concerns heard in Everett in 1994.

At that time, a merger was in the works between Everett’s two hospitals.

One, Providence Hospital, was Catholic. The other, General Hospital Medical Center, was not.

Questions were raised over how the merger could affect women’s access to reproductive services, due to Catholic opposition to abortion and restrictions on sterilizations.

Before the deal was sealed, General Hospital donated $500,000 to Planned Parenthood in Snohomish County, an endowment that exists to this day.

Earlier this month, within days after Seattle’s Swedish Health Services announced plans to form a new nonprofit health care organization with the Catholic-run Providence Health & Services, some of the same questions over women’s reproductive issues were raised.

With concerns beginning to mount by groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, an abortion-rights advocacy group, Swedish announced a deal with Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest.

Swedish will help pay for a new Planned Parenthood clinic, scheduled to open early next year. It will be based in the Nordstrom Tower, a building not owned by Swedish but on one of Swedish’s downtown Seattle hospital campuses.

“All the doctors in the Swedish system will refer folks to us,” said Kristen Glundberg-Prossor, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest. “It’s a really interesting and unique collaboration.”

Alison Mondi, a spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, said her organization still has concerns. “We’ll be talking to Swedish and Planned Parenthood to ensure … that women are able to access everything they need,” Mondi said.

Swedish, which is not affiliated with a religious group, currently provides limited elective abortions at one of its downtown Seattle hospitals. It plans to discontinue the practice if the partnership is approved.

At Providence Health & Services, abortions are prohibited except when a woman’s life is at risk.

Sterilizations in women, known as tubal ligations, are not conducted in Catholic hospitals simply for birth control. They can be done to treat a serious medical condition, such as an ectopic pregnancy, where the fetus develops outside the womb, according to Jack Mudd, a senior vice president for Providence Health & Services.

Many details, such as how much Swedish is donating to Planned Parenthood and whether the money will come as a lump sum or in annual payments, have yet to be announced.

The proposed Swedish-Providence partnership also raises questions about reproductive services at Swedish’s hospital in Edmonds. Swedish took over management of the former Stevens Hospital last year. But it remains a public hospital with annual taxes collected from property owners paid to the hospital’s taxing district.

Elective abortions are not currently performed there, said Swedish spokesman Ed Boyle.

Tubal ligations are available to women at the hospital and will continue to be performed at Swedish/Edmonds if the planned partnership with Providence is approved, he said.

Patients won’t see any change, but the procedure will be separately managed and governed, he said. While the details are still being worked out, it will likely include a manager with responsibility for those services reporting to a local Swedish board, Boyle said.

Abortions also are not conducted at Swedish’s other medical facility in Snohomish County, its satellite emergency room, Swedish/Mill Creek.

The issues being sorted out in the Swedish-Providence partnership are just one example of a national trend in health care of non-religious hospitals being folded into hospitals with a religious affiliation, said Steven K. Green, who directs the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy at Willamette University, in Salem, Ore.

“On one level, it’s concerning to many people because reproductive and other types of health services are less available,” he said.

Such mergers can raise constitutional questions about the tailoring of health services to meet the tenets of a hospital with a religious affiliation, Green said.

It’s a topic that has drawn the interest of groups supporting the separation of church and state as well as those backing women’s reproductive rights, he said.

Yet the proposed partnership between Swedish and Providence “seems like one of the more collaborative I’ve seen,” he said.

“Many times, all reproductive services in conflict with the faith have to be discontinued,” Green said.

Leslie Griffin, a constitutional law professor at the University of Houston, said it’s important for all agreements on contraception and other health issues that may conflict with Catholic teachings to be spelled out before a partnership between a religious and non-religious health care organization is approved.

“After the fact, you’ll have a hard route,” she said.

Although the merger of Everett’s two hospitals and the proposed Swedish-Providence partnership both involved donations to Planned Parenthood, there are differences in the two cases, Glundberg-Prossor said.

The donation made by the former General Hospital to Planned Parenthood pays for such services as birth control, sterilizations, annual exams, checks for early signs of cervical cancer, and abortions. However, the organization’s clinic is not near the Everett hospital’s Pacific or Colby campuses.

“Planned Parenthood is going to be right in the middle of the Swedish Hospital campus,” she said. “This is really a creative approach to maintaining access and the same full range of reproductive services for their patients.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or

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