Pro-lifers defend St. Mike's Hospital
By Paul Tuns
An April 7 announcement by St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto has fuelled a debate about the role of a publicly-funded religious hospital. St Mike's said nearby Wellesley Hospital—which the Roman Catholic institution had just taken over, in a government-mandated merger—will no longer provide abortions, sterilizations, or condoms.
AIDS Action Now, the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL), the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics, and the Access to Healthcare Action Group held a "We're No Angels" protest against St Mike's May 30.
Protesters called for the Ontario government "to order St Mike's to immediately implement open HIV/AIDS and full reproductive rights programmes," including abortion, "safe-sex" counselling, and tubal ligation on demand.
Chris Melnick, president of the Toronto chapter of CARAL, told The Interim the three main issues are whether Wellesley's 1,000-1,500 abortions per year will be available elsewhere; whether St Mike's and the Ontario government recognize the need for "sexual health services" at all hospitals; and whether St Mike's treats women who need emergency care after having an abortion at a private "clinic."
Anthony Fuchs, St Mike's acting director of communications, told The Interim "there are other services within walking distance of Wellesley that provide abortions." Within walking distance of Wellesley there are three free-standing abortion centres, and downtown Toronto has four hospitals that provide abortions.
Fuchs said Wellesley has never released its annual number of abortions, and said the real number is probably half that claimed by abortion-rights supporters. Health Minister Elizabeth Witmer said the Wellesley abortion doctors have all gone to other hospitals, and that women seeking abortions "are going to be accommodated elsewhere."
Other activists allege the Catholic hospital has an anti-gay bias, and cannot properly care for HIV/AIDS patients. Paul MacPhee, co-chair of AIDS Action Now, told The Interim St Mike's "is condescending with its ‘it's our hospital, we'll tell you what to do,' attitude." He also said gays are not comfortable at St Mike's. "They provide service in a patronizing way in the Catholic paradigm: ‘Look at those wretched people, let's care for them.'"
Fuchs said St. Mike's has a long and proud history of HIV/AIDS treatment. He added that the hospital's HIV/AIDS program, one the first in Toronto beginning in 1987 and currently treating 200 patients, is expected to expand with the Wellesley merger. Responding to charges that St Mike's is "homophobic," Fuchs said, "we extend an open-hand to the gay community and anybody else that needs treatment."
Last November, Wellesley AIDS doctor Philip Berger became head of family and inner-city medicine at St Mike's. He warned that the campaign against St Mike's could scare away people who desperately need care at the hospital. He also pointed to the hospital's long tradition of caring for the marginalized in Toronto.
Ron Rosenes, chair of the AIDS Committee of Toronto and a member of the HIV community advisory panel at St Mike's, says groups concerned about the merger should work within the system. He claimed people have not been involved in the decision-making process affecting same-sex partners, and some have been denied visitation rights.
Rosenes, MacPhee, and Melnick all stressed the importance of birth-control and the free distribution of condoms. Fuchs said, "condoms are generally not distributed in a doctor's setting." But a St Mike's press release says birth-control counselling includes the "preventive role of condoms."
Pro-life activist Bill Whatcott organized a counter-protest against the "We're No Angels" demonstration. Whatcott, an evangelical Christian and a healthcare professional, says St Mike's is an important institution which allows health care providers a choice not to be involved in practices to which they conscientiously object.
One placard from the counter-protest read, "Pro-choicers, please give this hospital the right to choose life."
Whatcott organized the protest because he said St Mike's isn't actively defending their stand. He said they state they are abiding by the Catholic Healthcare Ethics Guide and are within their legal rights, but that they don't make the case that what they are doing is morally right.
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