Three years ago, when I retired from my position as director of volunteer services for Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia, I knew I wanted to get involved in another organization that could make a difference. So I joined NCJW’s Philadelphia section in October of 2010 — little did I realize how quickly I would tap into the power of our NCJW group to help save reproductive freedom for women in Philadelphia.
On July 4, I learned that Abington Health System planned to merge with Holy Redeemer Health System, which pledges to adhere to Catholic doctrine. As a part of the merger deal Abington had agreed that it would no longer do abortions. I was appalled. Until now, Abington had been vocal about its commitment to women’s reproductive rights.
The first thing I did was call my rabbi, who told me the merger would be the topic of his Erev Shabbat sermon, and that a group of local rabbis would meet on the issue. I suggested also involving Christian ministers.
The second thing I did was to call my OB-GYN (an Abington-affiliated doctor) to ask if she is affiliated with any other hospital, because if the merger went through I planned to leave all of my Abington doctors in protest.
Next, I emailed our NCJW board, on which Eleanor Levie happens to sit. A former SPA and NCJW national board member and now our Section’s advocacy chair, Eleanor has represented NCJW in meetings with leading pro-choice activists nationwide. She was on the same case at the same time, and we started communicating regularly.
It soon became clear that many others were also outraged and wanted a strategy for joint action. Our NCJW legislative chair, Linda Lempert, and I attended a community meeting of about 20 concerned individuals and representatives of other activist groups, local politicians, JSPAN, and the Pennsylvania Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice.
At that meeting, Linda and I pushed for an Abington “stop the merger” petition. We helped draft it, and by afternoon a computer savvy young woman had it online and linked to a Facebook page started by another committee member. By the middle of the next day we had 1000 signatures, and within five days we had 5000. The link, along with the key points, was sent to every member of the Abington Health governing board, while we, as individuals, emailed every board member, called our doctors, wrote letters to local newspapers, spread the word through email and Facebook, distributed STOP THE MERGER buttons, and circulated paper petitions for even more signatures.
Meanwhile, Abington Health’s medical staff and affiliated physicians, certainly including Abington’s OB/GYN department and residents but extending well beyond to other specialists, surgeons, internists, and more, worked hard to get Abington’s leadership and board to listen to their outrage. Members of sub-boards at Abington, including many vocal women’s board members, weighed in, along with elected officials including Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz and State Representative Larry Curry.
On Tuesday, July 17, the petition with over 6000 signatures supported by hundreds of very strong and worthy comments was hand delivered to the Abington CEO’s office and emailed to every board member. On Wednesday, after what we heard was a more than four-hour meeting of the Abington Health board, it was announced that the merger was off. Lois Utley of MergerWatch/Raising Women’s Voices said “this was the fastest merger defeat in the 15 years we have been doing this!” Woohoo!
It was wonderful to work as an NCJW activist with a coalition of so many different groups and with individual concerned citizens of all faiths and backgrounds to achieve the very important goal of preserving respect for reproductive rights. Together, we helped to ensure that our local non-sectarian community hospital will continue to respect the civil rights of all who come through its doors. We will keep up our vigilance and we will continue to monitor Abington Health, but our victory is proof that a grassroots movement of citizens working without any money can make change happen. It has given me renewed faith in our democracy.
Sandy Fryer, Programming VP, NCJW Greater Philadelphia Section