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How A City-Owned Hospital In Florida Wound Up Operating Under The Catholic Bishops' Control -- And What Americans United And Its Allies Are Doing About It

Sister Pat Shirley was not happy. The Roman Catholic nun had just learned that a local woman whose fetus had Down's Syndrome had received an abortion at St. Petersburg's Bayfront Medical Center.

Sources familiar with the situation say an angry Shirley marched into the next meeting of the hospital's ethics committee, of which she is a member, waving around an edict issued by the Catholic bishops and insisting that no more abortions take place at Bayfront.

She soon got her way. Bayfront's policy on abortion now mirrors Catholic dogma.

In a separate case, a woman in her seventh month of pregnancy had a sonogram that revealed that her fetus had no bladder or kidneys and severely under-developed lungs. She requested an abortion, but Bayfront refused. The woman was forced to carry the fetus to term; it lived about 30 minutes.

Situations like this might have been expected at a Catholic hospital, since those institutions routinely ban all abortions as a violation of church doctrine. But Bayfront isn't a Catholic hospital. In fact, it is taxpayer supported, occupies land owned by the municipal government and, although managed by a private group, is considered a city-owned hospital.

How did a Catholic nun get the power to determine health care at a publicly supported medical institution like Bayfront? Critics of the situation in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area are asking the same question. And, not happy with the arrangement, they've enlisted Americans United's help to put a stop to it.

A number of dramatic changes have occurred at Bayfront since 1997. Ethical decisions about the medical care doctors could provide at the facility used to be made on the basis of standard medical criteria. Now they are made by an "ethics committee" that includes Shirley. The hospital used to provide elective abortions. Now the facility bans all abortions -- even when the pregnancies are the result of rape or incest.

Employees at Bayfront used to answer to medical codes of ethics as they performed their duties. Now every doctor, nurse, health care professional, student intern, staff member and volunteer is required to sign a statement pledging to abide by a series of restrictive health-care regulations promulgated by the Catholic bishops.

What happened at Bayfront isn't unusual. In recent years, dozens of non-sectarian hospitals have merged with Catholic institutions. In the process, the non-sectarian hospitals have often agreed to abide by Catholic teachings on reproduction and other issues. This means no abortions, no distribution of contraceptives and no sterilizing operations such as vasectomies and tubal ligations. In addition, the hospitals have agreed to follow church doctrine on end-of-life issues and may ignore a patient's living will if it is deemed in conflict with church dogma.

What is unusual is that Bayfront operates as a city hospital, in a city-owned building and is subsidized by taxpayer funds. Therefore, opponents of the merger charge, the 300-bed hospital had no legal right to agree to subordinate health care to Catholic doctrine. In fact, they believe the hospital is violating the separation of church and state and have gone to court to make that argument.

On Aug. 16 Americans United and three other advocacy organization joined forces to put an end to the merger. AU and the other groups, the National Organization for Women Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, joined as plaintiffs with four local residents. Among them is Elizabeth Lindenberg, the St. Petersburg woman whose decision to abort her fetus in November of 1997 made Shirley so angry.

Lindenberg told Church & State that a hospital employee who attended the meeting filled her in on what happened. …