Elizabeth, NJ — A first of its kind settlement agreement will ensure that Elizabeth residents continue to have access to reproductive medical services even after Elizabeth General Medical Center merges with St. Elizabeth Hospital to form a new Catholic hospital, Trinitas Hospital.
Under the agreement, which was signed last Friday, Elizabeth General Medical Center will set aside $2.4 million in two separate trusts to be used by Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey to ensure delivery of certain medical services that will not be provided by Trinitas Hospital, which will be governed by the Ethical and Religious Directives of the National Catholic Bishops Conference. The funds will specifically support the provision of tubal case management, abortion referral and options counseling, direct financial assistance to women who cannot afford the full cost of abortions and tubal ligations, and transportation for women who will have to leave the City of Elizabeth to receive certain medical treatment after the formation of Trinitas.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Foundation and the Women's Rights Litigation Clinic intervened in proceedings regarding the transfer of Elizabeth General Medical Center's charitable assets to the new Catholic hospital on behalf of the ACLU of New Jersey, the New Jersey Religious Coalition for Choice, New Jersey Right to Choose, Dr. Martin Hyman and two Elizabeth residents. In those proceedings the Honorable Miriam N. Span of Superior Court, Chancery Division, Union County, found that the conversion of the secular Elizabeth General Medical Center into a Catholic hospital was a change in charitable mission.
“This is a first,” said Renee Steinhagan, Special Counsel for the Women's Rights Litigation Clinic. “This is the first time that a court has permitted community organizations to intervene as a party in a court hearing held to determine the propriety of a merger between two charitable health care organizations, the first time that a court found that the transformation of a secular hospital to a Catholic one constituted a change in charitable mission, and the first time that a court approved a charitable asset payment that appropriately accommodated that change in mission.”
Lenora Lapidus, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey, agrees with this sentiment. “This is a great precedent that can be used by women's groups both in New Jersey and around the country to preserve women's access to important medical care. In this era of healthcare consolidations, the Catholic Church's strength in the hospital market, no longer has to mean the end of a women's right to choose.”
Steinhagan says that Judge Span's decision is important for precedential legal value and as an example of a judicial decision that considers important public policy principles as New Jersey's continuing loss of secular hospitals puts women's reproductive rights at risk.