Opinion: Left of Center

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The Assault on Women’s Reproductive Health: Can’t Happen Here – Or Has It?

By Jean Hastings Ardell

The news out of Texas about the passage of its law banning most abortions after six weeks, without exception for rape or incest, gave many citizens of our presumed progressive state pause. Not going to happen here, you’d think. And yet, as the page one headline in the Sept. 27 Los Angeles Times read, “Legal, but far from easy.” As physician Janet Jacobson, medical director and Senior Vice President of Clinical Services at Planned Parenthood of Orange & San Bernardino Counties, put it, given that California legislators “have spent the last several years working to protect abortion access… you would think that [the procedure] would be secure.” That is untrue, she maintains. “People in rural areas of California or people who have lower income or people of color have difficulty accessing abortion care for a number of reasons.”

Please know that even if you are urban, rich, and white, here in Orange County the limitations on not only abortion but other reproductive healthcare options are real. I know this because I attended the June 20, 2013, protest rally against Hoag Hospital’s decision to ban elective abortions after it affiliated with St. Joseph Hospital. Many of the protesters were women who remember what life was like before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in 1973. I was there in memory of my aunt, who during the Great Depression underwent what my mother called a back-alley abortion. I was told the story when I was 14, probably as a caution, for my aunt nearly bled to death and never was able to bear children.

At the protest that day was Nancy Skinner, a part-time Laguna resident, whose husband Jack was an internist on staff at Hoag for 30 years. He also served as head of Hoag’s continuing medical education for more than two decades. In a recent phone conversation, Nancy recalled a story that had informed their activism for women’s reproductive rights throughout 65 years of marriage:

“During his residency, Jack was on duty in the OB-GYN ward where he treated a lovely young woman. She had attempted to abort herself, and he couldn’t save her. He was at her side as she died. He kept saying throughout his life, `We can’t go back to that.’

So abortion rights are a big concern to me – I don’t think it’s true that it can’t happen here.”

After the 2013 protest, Hoag, a Presbyterian hospital, had extracted concessions by the Attorney General (AG) to continue other reproductive health care treatments from St. Joseph, a Catholic hospital, but doctors increasingly found unresolvable corporate roadblocks that affected many aspects of healthcare, particularly after the two hospitals were acquired by Providence Health System in 2016. So it was that in May 2020, Hoag filed suit to end its relationship with Providence/St. Joseph. As Hoag’s President and Chief Executive Robert Braithwaite, explained it was a “`paradox of scale,’ where going bigger diluted and constrained local control.’”

For those involved with women’s reproductive health, allegations about the imposition by St. Joseph/Providence of the Catholic Church’s ERDs (ethical and religious directives) remain deeply concerning.

“The reproductive health issue in question in this lawsuit is that Providence is restricting contraceptive care (even for non-contraceptive purposes) way beyond its ban on abortion care, based on the ERDs, and in direct and flagrant violation of the AG’s conditions,” said Allyson W. Sonenshine, project director of the Orange County Women’s Health Project.

Gwen McNallan, the president of the Laguna Beach Democratic Club, first learned of the Hoag lawsuit from a neighbor in July. McNallan, who grew up in an Irish-Catholic family of five boys and five girls, felt a visceral response:

“I was used to fighting for gender equality all my life. It was shocking and appalling to me that this is happening in progressive California. For those of us who grew up post-Roe v. Wade, the idea of a Catholic hospital imposing their values on others is just so wrong. When you walk up to Hoag or to Mission Hospital in Laguna, I don’t see a sign on the front door stating that your reproductive rights are denied, so patients have no idea of what they’re getting into.”

So it is that on Saturday, Oct. 2, as part of the national Women’s March to defend reproductive rights, the Laguna Beach Democratic Club will gather at Main Beach from 10 a.m. to noon. The issue will also be the focus of the club’s regular meeting at 7 p.m. on Oct. 13 via Zoom, where the speakers will be Dr. Tabetha Harken, UC Irvine associate professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology; Alyson Brooks, executive medical director and endowed chair at Hoag Women’s Health Institute; and a representative from Planned Parenthood who will explain how its working with women from other states to access reproductive healthcare. (For more information check thelbdems.org).

Those of us who in 2013 protested Hoag’s affiliation stand united with the hospital’s doctors and staff desire to return it to local control – and as a haven where women can be assured of comprehensive care.

Jean is a Laguna Beach resident and writer.

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