|Speaking Out on Religious Hospital Mergers
For the last 15 years, PRCH member Wayne Goldner, MD, has been living peacefully and productively in Manchester, New Hampshire. Dr. Goldner, who received his MD from the University of Pennsylvania, has a successful ob/gyn practice; he has been active in his community teaching sexuality education in the local schools; he has twice been awarded the American Medical Association’s Physicians Recognition Award and twice received CME Awards from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists. Dr. Goldner provides abortions in his office and, when medically necessary, at the hospital.
Early in 1994, however, secular Elliot Hospital merged with Catholic Medical Center to form Optima Health. As a result, Dr. Goldner’s days remain as productive as ever, but they are far from peaceful. At the time of the merger, the medical staff at Elliot hospital was assured that there would be no changes in the provision of reproductive healthcare, including abortions. Late in 1997, however, it became public knowledge that an abortion had been scheduled at the Elliot facility. In the wake of the ensuing controversy over a religiously affiliated institution performing such a procedure, the Board of Trustees quickly voted to eliminate all terminations, including those that were medically indicated.
Dr. Goldner found his colleagues to be frighteningly unaware of the repercussions of such an action. “When it was pointed out that the Church’s guidelines could potentially go on to eliminate vasectomies, tubal ligations, morning-after pills, post-coital rape contraception, living wills and the termination of life support,” he says, “the staff began to listen.” They voted unanimously to reject the policy and asked the Board to reconsider.
Their actions were to no avail, but Dr. Goldner refused to give up on his patients and on his ability to practice medicine in their best interest. He began to speak out, write letters and encourage his colleagues to protest such clear disregard for their medical opinion.
He has not received the support he needs. He is regularly picketed. His family is harassed. He is encouraged in his efforts only superficially and, often, clandestinely. Physicians willing to fight this battle will often find themselves alone and abandoned.
Dr. Goldner has found support from local and state reproductive healthcare organizations and from New Hampshire’s Attorney General. An Attorney General’s Report states, “The adoption of a termination of pregnancy policy that is consistent with Catholic doctrine for Elliot does not fulfill the obligation that Optima undertook to maintain the identity of Catholic Medical Center as a Catholic institution. It does, however, compromise Elliot’s traditionally secular approach to medicine. The logical and legal incoherence of this approach is evident.”
Dr. Goldner has been very active with the media, a tactic he believes is “the most powerful weapon.” “There is a tremendous need for national support for these groups trying to oppose mergers and restrict patient access to healthcare,” he says. “I’m concerned about physician autonomy and what’s best for our patients.” The story has been covered widely in New Hampshire, to the point where Dr. Goldner is referred to as “The Manchester obstetrician in the forefront of the Elliot abortion debate.”
But Dr. Goldner wants national recognition of what he regards as a national problem. He predicts that “the erosion of reproductive rights will occur and will persist.” Increasingly, secular hospitals face restrictions because of mergers with religious institutions. Yet Dr. Goldner remains hopeful. “My final advice to physicians willing to do battle is that although there will be many down days and great costs emotionally and personally, the final outcome in preserving patient and physician autonomy is essential and, in the end, personally rewarding.”