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Originally published Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 3:46 PM

Guest columnist

Swedish-Providence merger limits women's access to safe abortions

Guest columnist Deborah Oyer raises concerns about women's access to abortions in light of Swedish Medical Center's decision to merge with Providence Health Services and stop allowing abortions in its hospitals and clinics.

Special to The Times

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SWEDISH Medical Center recently announced that it is merging with Providence Health Services, a Catholic organization. The first reports stressed that this would be a unique merger because it would be the union of a secular and a religious organization and each would retain its own ideals. However, it is now clear Swedish plans to sacrifice its ideal of providing comprehensive, quality care, succumbing to Providence's demand to stop doing abortions in its hospitals and clinics.

Because this news caused an outcry from women's-rights groups, Swedish announced it will fund a Planned Parenthood clinic in the Nordstrom Tower attached to Swedish Medical Center. This political response does not solve the medical issues caused by the merger. Women's health care in Washington will be worse as a result.

It is very easy for a healthy woman in the Seattle area to get an outpatient abortion. In Seattle, like most major cities in the country, there is an ample supply of physicians providing quality abortion services. Adding one more women's health clinic in a glutted local market while the number of abortions performed in Washington state is falling does not advance women's health care.

The two main obstacles to quality abortion access in Western Washington are living far from the Seattle area, and being ill enough to need to have your abortion procedure done in the hospital operating room. By halting the provision of abortions in their hospitals and clinics, Swedish has worsened both of these obstacles to quality care.

A new Planned Parenthood clinic addresses neither problem. Currently in the Seattle area there is an oversupply of providers doing good, comprehensive reproductive health and abortion care. There are many women's health providers already in the Nordstrom Tower (33 listed online). There are many providers in the other medical buildings affiliated with Swedish. My office, Aurora Medical Services, is a block and a half away. Even the main Planned Parenthood headquarters and clinic is a mere eight blocks away. There is no need for an additional Planned Parenthood clinic on First Hill.

By giving up doing abortions in their hospitals Swedish is abandoning those women who need in-hospital procedures due to medical needs. For these women, getting an abortion is always more difficult. Swedish has just made it significantly more challenging for them. They will now have to leave the doctor they know and trust, a hospital system with which they are familiar, and find their way in another cumbersome hospital system farther from home.

If Swedish were to fund a women's reproductive services clinic in rural Washington, it would address a genuine need and there would be a net increase in care. By prohibiting the provision of abortion at Swedish's network of geographically distributed clinics, however, access to care in rural areas is diminished.

Abortion is a safe, legal medical procedure. It saves women's lives. It allows women and their families to have control over their lives. Washington state has been a national model for access to quality abortion care. At a time when abortion rights are being curbed in many conservative states across the country, we have stood firmly in support of women's rights. It is deeply troubling that Swedish is caving to the demands of one church by agreeing to restrict women's access to care.

That Swedish is giving in to Providence and sacrificing women's health care is shameful. Let us not be distracted by their financial contribution to Planned Parenthood, which is nothing more than a blatant political attempt to save face in liberal Seattle. This clinic would not provide care in rural areas, nor would it be equipped to provide the hospital care necessary for complicated procedures. The merger, as proposed, is detrimental to health care in Washington State.

Deborah Oyer, MD, is owner of Aurora Medical Services and clinical faculty member at UW School of Medicine. She previously served on the Board of the National Abortion Federation and on the National Medical Committee for Planned Parenthood.

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