The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Women Watch Brackenridge

By Jennie Kennedy, July 20, 2001, News

One month after Seton Health Networks announced that it would no longer be able to offer services contrary to Catholic teaching at Austin's Brackenridge Hospital, women's groups across the city are joining forces to ensure that Austinites can obtain reproductive services.

Local chapters of national groups, such as the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, the National Organization for Women, and Planned Parenthood, have been mobilizing since last month's decision by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops that effectively ended the practice at Catholic-run hospitals known as "material cooperation," which had been in effect at Brackenridge for the past six years. This allowed reproductive services to be available, but not by Seton employees. Instead, an outside contractor with the city provides contract clinical staff -- such as registered nurses and surgical technicians -- to assist physicians with procedures such as sterilizations. The 30-year lease included a provision, in case the bishops issued a new set of directives, that the contract be renegotiated.

City officials, including Mayor Kirk Watson, have repeatedly promised that services will continue to be available without giving specifics but have also promised a resolution sometime this summer.

"We don't know what the options will be, and that's what we're waiting for," said Sarah Wheat, director of public affairs for TARAL.

While the groups essentially have to wait until the City Council makes a decision later this month, many felt that it was important to let city officials know their position. In a statement to the council, Austinites from groups ranging from Planned Parenthood to the Gray Panthers said, "access to reproductive heath care is fundamental to the well being of women."

The statement demanded that the services remain on site at Brackenridge and that Seton should pay the cost of accommodating the new rules.

While council watchers continue to speculate about a possible solution, the statement suggests three acceptable plans. One possibility would be to dump the contract with Seton in favor of a management company without restrictions on women's health care. But it is more likely that the city -- which has been quick to praise Seton for its work with indigent patients -- will make a plan similar to one of the other solutions listed by the groups.

These include creating a hospital within a hospital that would handle women's health services, or else moving the entire obstetric unit to another location. For many of the activists, it is important that the maternity ward not be separated from the other services, such as sterilization. During the past fiscal year, about 400 people underwent sterilization at Brackenridge, many immediately after childbirth.

For Anne McAfee of the Travis County Democrats, it is important that reproductive health services are provided to help ensure that every child has the chance to be a wanted child.

"A young woman who at age 16 might make a lousy mother, but that the very same young woman, say at age 24 -- when she's had a chance to get her life's circumstances together -- might make a fantastic mother, and she should be given that opportunity," said McAfee. "All children deserve the opportunity to grow up in a stable family."

At a city-sponsored meeting that took place after press time Wednesday night, Austinites had a chance to voice their concerns to such city leaders as assistant city manager Betty Dunkerley and health and human services director David Lurie.

For Mandy Dealey, a board member of Planned Parenthood, alerting council members to the implications of the issue is extremely important.

"The most important thing is to let the council know that this is a concern for a lot of people, that they have seamless reproductive health care," she said.

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