Abortion clinics are for ending pregnancies. Hospitals are for general health care. That dichotomy has become the standard in today’s abortion access landscape — but it’s now starting to change. A new insistence on admitting privileges, transfer agreements, and other unnecessary requirements for abortion providers has begun tying the two together in ways that haven’t been seen since the pre-Roe era.
Ultimately, that means anti-abortion protesters are gaining a new foothold.
Four decades ago, hospitals used to be the sole providers of legal abortions, always in cases like health issues or potential fetal deformities. After abortion was made legal in all 50 states with the Roe v. Wade court ruling, independent clinics began springing up throughout the country. Those stand-alone clinics offered more personal and less expensive care, but also segregated abortion from the rest of the medical profession. Today, elective abortion is almost exclusively an out-of-hospital occurrence.
And that’s exactly the way medical boards like it. With clinics bearing the majority of the responsibility for terminating pregnancies, hospitals — many of whom are increasingly owned by religious non-profit and for-profit entities — are able to steer clear of any of the divisiveness they encountered in the 1970s and early 1980s, when abortion was still a portion of their services.
Those controversies are returning, however, as hospitals are increasingly viewed as the weak link in the battle over abortion access. Admitting privileges legislation has made hospitals the gatekeeper for abortion clinics’ ability to remain open. That’s allowed protests to move away from the clinics themselves and back to the hospitals, a far more vulnerable target.
Hospital protests spread across the country
In Texas, where the state’s endangered clinics are struggling to stay open, the anti-abortion organization Life Dynamics has put together a campaign notifying hospitals that offering admitting privileges to any abortion-providing doctors could be bad for them in some mysterious, unnamed way.
The letters addressed to every hospital in the state don’t specify what exactly the facilities will experience if they do provide access for a doctor. But there are a number of different ways to target a hospital in order to cut off access to legal abortion. Other examples from around the country make it clear that these institutions may experience protests, picketing, and outright harassment of their medical staff and their executives.
For instance, a small group of anti-choice activists in Alabama made it their mission to take on Crestwood Medical Center for offering admitting privileges to one abortion provider in the Huntsville area. In a letter, abortion opponents referred to the hospital as “the ‘lifeline’ enabling the local abortion business to operate,” and promised a protest on hospital grounds. The hospital itself was unmoved, responding in a statement, “We do not intend to — nor can we legally — revoke the medical staff privileges of any trained, licensed, lawful and duly credentialed physician for issues that have no bearing on his or her work or practice at the hospital.”
In Ohio, anti-abortion activists tucked legislation into the state’s yearly budget to make it more difficult for clinics to remain open. The new law requires transfer agreements with nearby hospitals, and even limits which hospitals can offer those privileges by forbidding any institution that receives public funds from entering into an agreement with a local abortion provider. Now, that legislation could have a rippling effect, as pro-life action groups in the state seek to draw attention to hospitals that use abortion clinics to train doctors in full spectrum reproductive health care.
“What kind of logic by University Hospitals can justify training abortionists at Preterm to kill children whose only sin is that their earthly presence will be “inconvenient” while trying to save children of the same gestational age born prematurely at Rainbow Babies and Children Hospital?” demands Lake County Right to Life, a local anti-choice group in Ohio, which has urged its supporters to call the hospital’s Chief Executive Officer and Board Members and demand an end to their “participation in child killing.”
Together, Lake Country Right to Life and Cleveland Right to Life also organized a “prayerful witness” at the main campus of the hospital to protest the “five notorious local abortionists… listed on the teaching faculty of UH.”
The hospital doesn’t even need to be in the same state to be a target. An abortion opponent and pastor from Wisconsin has begun a campaign against the Mayo Clinic Health System in Rochester, Minnesota, demanding the hospital fire a doctor whom he feels didn’t provide adequate care for his wife during a high-risk pregnancy. He claims that the doctor doesn’t value “life” because he might be providing abortions for pregnancy complications at a different hospital — and the protests are taking place at the Franciscan-Mayo in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, despite the fact that no abortions are being performed there.
The pressure of the church
Not properly following the Catholic Health Care Directives for faith-based hospitals appears to be a key instigator for many hospital protests. Abortion opponents have determined that offering admitting privileges to an abortion provider makes the hospital just as complicit in an abortion as if they were being performed in the buildings themselves.
Bearing signs with slogans such as “Abortionists work here,” “Is Franciscan Catholic or Pro-Abortion?” or “St. Francis, rebuild our hospital,” the Wisconsin pastor, his wife, and their supporters are demanding that the Mayo hospital system fire the doctor because they claim his employment and actions violate the Catholic directives. They have continued their protests outside the Wisconsin hospital, especially on days when they know the doctor in question will be visiting to consult on high risk pregnancies.
Michigan abortion clinics don’t actually require admitting privileges under state law, but that hasn’t stopped the protesters there. Providence Park Hospital, which is located about 30 miles outside of Detroit, Michigan, is being protested by the local anti-abortion action groups because the hospital provides admitting privileges to four doctors who perform abortions.
“We have faith in our church, we take comfort in our faith… and to find out that we can’t come to a Catholic hospital without worrying about someone who performs abortions being there — it’s very unsettling,” said Lynn Mills, an active anti-abortion activist in the state.
In Texas, where abortion access is literally hanging by a thread, protesters spent their Mother’s Day picketing Christus Spohn Hospital, a Catholic hospital in Corpus Christi. The hospital is being accused of keeping the area’s only clinic open by offering admitting privileges — the central requirement in a recent law that’s slowly closing off nearly every clinic in the state.
“By them allowing him those admitting privileges, they’re basically enabling his practice to remain open and continue to kill the unborn in Corpus Christi,” activist Daniel Sem told KRISTV.com. Sem said that protests would continue as long as abortion remains accessible. “We don’t plan to stop until abortion is finished in Corpus Christi or the Lord returns.”
Public protest outside the hospital is just one aspect of pressuring a hospital, and Sem and his supporters are urging that every avenue be undertaken, from petitions to phone calls to emails and even letters addressed to their ranking executives.
In the summer of 2013, when California’s Hoag Hospital was in mid-merger with a new Catholic medical group, staff and abortion rights supporters rallied against news that Hoag was intending to stop performing abortions on site. Abortion opponents, on the other hand, were delighted — and not only protested at the hospital itself against doctors opposing the change, but even took the fight home to the doctors themselves.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “About 50 to 100 antiabortion protesters wrote messages in chalk and shouted slurs outside the home of a Newport Beach obstetrician who was one of the doctors to oppose Hoag Hospital’s decision to eliminate elective abortions.” Those chalk messages consisted of snippets like “neighborhood serial killer” and “This house was built from blood.”
Just one of the 99 ways to stop abortion
Both hospital and home pickets are key protest methods in “Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion,” the handbook for how to end legal abortion in the country. Author Joe Scheidler, founder of Pro-Life Action League and the now defunct Pro-Life Action Network, has used a variety of ways to target hospitals over the decades, especially hospitals that were still doing abortions on site.
“We had a lot of success at Illinois Masonic,” Scheidler recounted. “We met with the board there. They wouldn’t stop doing abortions, but we would protest the hospital and we had a dozen little caskets made — baby caskets — and we would carry them in front of the hospital and the people who worked there were furious, announcing the fact that they did abortions at that hospital. But some of the residents, doctors and nurses, walked out and joined us because they agreed.”
Illinois Masonic wasn’t as big of a success as Cook County Hospital, where Scheilder and his followers were able to get the hospital to stop offering terminations all together. But overall, according to Scheilder, hospital protests tend to be more effective when the entity itself is religious, or if religious doctors or executives are made the focus of the action. The strategy works even better if protesters can get the church itself involved.
“Cabrini Hospital [in Chicago] had a woman doctor there teaching, and she also did abortions,” said Scheidler. “So we called the Mother Superior and told her that unless this woman who was giving instructions to the abortion doctors stopped doing abortions we would picket it. And so the Mother Superior sent us a notice assuring us that the doctor would stop doing abortions.”
Scheidler and other anti-abortion activists are highly aware of the weak link that hospitals have become in the quest to end access to legal abortion, especially if those activists can make the relationship a public relations nightmare. “It’s simply a black eye to be open to take the patients who have been botched in an abortion in a free standing clinic,” stated Scheidler. “And the threat of protests is very unpleasant. One thing hospitals don’t need are protesters to imply that they are connected in any way with abortions. It doesn’t mean they need someone to actually be doing abortions, but if they are open to have services available for an abortionist, it’s not worth it.”
While for now, hospital protests remain scattered, they are likely to grow more commonplace, especially in states that allow admitting privilege laws to go into effect. What is currently a few isolated events could eventually become an everyday occurrence, not unlike clinic protests themselves. For abortion opponents, it is an inevitable strategy to assuring the end of the abortion access.
“Of course we will apply pressure,” said Scheidler. “We are trying to get the abortion clinics closed. Without hospitals, the abortionist can’t get the resources he needs and then he closes. That’s what is going to happen around the country as this becomes more common.”
Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker and activist, and the author of Crow After Roe: How Women's Health Is the New Separate But Equal and How to Change That. Robin's articles have appeared in Ms. Magazine, Rolling Stone, Bitch Magazine,Talking Points Memo and other publications.