DULUTH (AP) -- Two proposed hospital mergers that would connect all three hospitals in this port city to Roman Catholic health systems has raised concerns that infertility treatments, morning-after contraceptive pills and other services that violate church guidelines could be restricted.
Talks are under way to merge the secular Miller-Dwan Medical Center with St. Mary's/Duluth Clinic Health System. The centerpiece of that system, St. Mary's Medical Center, is owned and operated by the Benedictine Health System.
At the same time, St. Luke's Hospital and Regional Trauma Center, which is also secular, is exploring a "50-50 partnership" with Ministry Health Care Corp., a Wisconsin-based Catholic health system affiliated with the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother.
Partners in the proposed mergers say Miller-Dwan and St.Luke's will remain secular and will continue to provide all the services they have been, including morning-after contraception at St. Luke's, and infertility treatment and sterilization procedures at Miller-Dwan.
Abortion hasn't been a central issue in the public debate because in Duluth, abortions are performed only at an independent women's clinic.
But critics of the proposed mergers, including representatives of Planned Parenthood, retired doctors and ministers of other faiths, say St. Luke's and Miller-Dwan's administrators could be pressured by a local bishop or even the Vatican into later cutting services that run counter to Catholic doctrine.
They echo concerns raised in communities across the nation where such mergers have occurred and, in some cases, patients immediately or eventually were denied vasectomies, tubal ligations, emergency contraception, condoms, in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination.
Such procedures are banned by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, compiled by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
St. Mary's Medical Center adheres to those directives, and when it merged in the mid-1990s with the Duluth Clinic, the clinic's doctors were required to sign a statement that they would abide by the directives.
More than 200 people attended a public hearing about the Miller-Dwan merger Tuesday night. Most of the dozen or so speakers expressed reservations.
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