Could St. Louis lose its Catholic hospitals under new federal abortion legislation?
By Tim Townsend
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Friday, Mar. 06 2009
A proposed bill promising major changes in the U.S. abortion landscape has
Roman Catholic bishops threatening to close Catholic hospitals if the
Democratic Congress and White House make it law.
The Freedom of Choice Act failed to get out of subcommittee in 2004, but its
sponsor is poised to refile it now that former Senate co-sponsor Barack Obama
occupies the Oval Office.
A spokesman for Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the legislation "is among the
congressman's priorities. We expect to reintroduce it sooner rather than later."
FOCA, as the bill is known, would make federal law out of the abortion
protections established in 1973 by the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade
The legislation has some Roman Catholic bishops threatening to shutter the
country's 624 Catholic hospitals — including 11 in the Archdiocese of St. Louis
— rather than comply.
Speaking in Baltimore in November at the bishops' fall meeting, Bishop Thomas
Paprocki, a Chicago auxiliary bishop, took up the issue of what to do with
Catholic hospitals if FOCA became law. "It would not be sufficient to withdraw
our sponsorship or to sell them to someone who would perform abortions," he
said. "That would be a morally unacceptable cooperation in evil."
But even within the Catholic community, there is disagreement about the effects
FOCA might have on hospitals, with some health care professionals and bishops
saying a strategy of ignoring the law, if it passes, would be more effective
than closing hospitals.
Ilan Kayatsky, Nadler's spokesman, said he anticipates that the bill's other
original sponsor, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., will introduce FOCA in the U.S.
Senate. "We expect it to be more or less the same bill with some minor tweaks,"
Boxer's office declined to comment.
Rep. William Lacy Clay, a Roman Catholic, and Rep. Russ Carnahan — both St.
Louis Democrats — were co-sponsors of the legislation. Neither responded to
requests for an interview. Bishop Robert Hermann, acting head of the
Archdiocese of St. Louis, was unavailable for comment.
In its last incarnation, FOCA defined abortion as a "fundamental right" that no
government can "deny" or "interfere with." That language, FOCA's opponents
warn, would help overturn abortion restrictions such as parental notification (for minors), laws banning certain procedures (Partical Birth Abortion http://www.nrlc.org/abortion/pba/PBA_Images/PBA_Images_Heathers_Place.htm) and constraints on federal funding (forcing taxpayers even those that morally oppose abortion to pay for them).
Some abortion rights groups say a friendlier Congress and White House makes
FOCA less of a priority for them, and they say religious conservatives who
oppose abortion rights are using FOCA as a scare tactic.
"Anti-choice groups know that there are not enough votes to move the Freedom of
Choice Act, yet they continue to engage in a divisive campaign demonizing FOCA
to distract the public from their opposition to birth control and accurate sex
education," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
The nation's Catholic bishops have been among the most vocal opponents of FOCA
and Obama's abortion-rights positions. In the days before the November
elections, one called Obama "the most committed" abortion-rights supporter to
head a presidential ticket since Roe. Obama had promised during his campaign he
would sign FOCA if he were elected.
Along with the 11 Catholic hospitals within the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the
Catholic Health Association of the United States says there are another seven
in the St. Louis area within the borders of the Belleville and Springfield,
According to the CHA, Catholic hospitals make up 13 percent of the country's
nearly 5,000 hospitals, and employ more than 600,000 people. CHA says one of every six Americans hospitalized in the United States is cared for in a Catholic hospital.
Not all bishops or Catholic health care professionals see closing down
hospitals as a realistic option. Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., a
member of CHA's board of trustees, wrote on his blog last month that "even in
the worst-case scenario, Catholic hospitals will not close. We will not comply,
but we will not close." Instead, he advocated a strategy of "civil
Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of CHA, said in an interview that she
did not believe the language in the most recent version of FOCA — despite its
definition of abortion as a fundamental right — would force Catholic hospitals
to perform abortions. But she also said that if it did, the church would look
to the historical example of racial segregation as a model for civil
"From the other side we hear consistent talk about being pro-choice," Keehan
said. "If FOCA passes, the concept of being pro-choice will not be incompatible
with our position — our choice would be not to participate."
Seven of the 11 hospitals in the Archdiocese of St. Louis are run by SSM
Healthcare. In a statement, the company said it opposes FOCA "because it
attempts to increase access to abortion and remove restrictions to abortion."
If FOCA were to become law, it continued, "We do not believe our Catholic
hospitals would be forced to participate and we would advocate strongly for our
right of conscience to refuse to provide abortion services."
While the Catholic Church has been most vocal on the FOCA issue, it's not
alone. As Obama prepared to take the oath of office in January, the National
Right to Life Committee warned its members that congressional Democrats were
poised to work with the new president "to push an expansive pro-abortion
"The pro-life movement," the organization declared in its monthly newspaper,
"is bracing for battle."
Pam Fichter, president of Missouri Right to Life, called FOCA "a top priority"
for her group, which is working to pass a resolution in both houses of the
Missouri Legislature that urges Congress to reject FOCA. The resolution has
passed the Missouri House and is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate, and
Missouri Right to Life is holding its Pro-Life Action Day in Jefferson City on
FOCA opponents have been discouraged by two moves made by Obama's
administration in recent weeks. In January, the administration repealed a Bush
policy that restricted federal dollars for international groups that perform or
promote abortion overseas.
And this week, Obama nominated Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to head the
Department of Health and Human Services. Sebelius is a Roman Catholic who has
been chastised by Kansas City, Kan., Archbishop Joseph Naumann for her
positions supporting abortion rights. Naumann called Sebelius' nomination this
After Sebelius' nomination, HHS hinted that it would soon repeal another Bush
administration rule — enacted in December — that allowed health care
professionals to opt out of providing abortion or birth control procedures on
In order to combat what its sees as inevitable, the Catholic Church launched a
"Fight FOCA" postcard campaign aimed at Congress in January. Rep. Blaine
Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., who participated in an anti-FOCA rally last month at St.
Anthony's Catholic School in Sullivan, said he has received "thousands" of
postcards over the last month including "a stack 2 feet high" Wednesday.
"People have worked 30-some years to protect the rights of the unborn and FOCA
would undo many of their efforts," Luetkemeyer said.
Keehan said shutting down Catholic hospitals would tear the fabric of the
American health care system.
"Catholic health care plays such an important role in communities across this
nation," she said, that Americans are "not going to sacrifice their health care
facility, which employs so many, cares for so many, and has been part of their
community for many years by forcing them to do abortions."
Freedom of Choice Act
This is language excerpted from the bill introduced in the 110th Congress, which died in subcommittee. Its sponsor says he will refile the bill this session.
— (a) Statement of Policy — It is the policy of the United States that every woman has the fundamental right to choose to bear a child, to terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability or to terminate a pregnancy after fetal viability when necessary to protect the life or health of the woman.
— (b) Prohibition of Interference — A government may not deny or interfere with a woman's right to choose to bear a child; terminate a pregnancy prior to viability; or terminate a pregnancy after viability where termination is necessary to protect the life or health of the woman.
— (c) Civil Action — An individual aggrieved by a violation of this section may obtain appropriate relief (including relief against a government) in a civil action.