Joint Statement on Virginia Mason and CHI Franciscan Merger Plan

News Release: 
Tuesday, July 21, 2020
SEATTLE -- Reproductive health, LGBTQ+, and end-of-life care advocates in Washington state are deeply concerned that CHI Franciscan, a religious health system, and Virginia Mason, one of the state’s few remaining large secular health systems, plan to merge. If the proposed merger moves forward, Virginia Mason will deny patients access to certain reproductive and end-of-life care options at their facilities.

“Virginia Mason’s plans jeopardize access to reproductive and end-of-life care, subordinating patients’ health care needs to religious doctrine,” said Leah Rutman, Health Care and Liberty Counsel for the ACLU of Washington. “Even worse, this is not the first move of this kind, nor is it likely to be the last. Washington state is a growing epicenter of religious-secular health system affiliations. In 2010, 26% of the state’s hospital beds were in religious or religiously affiliated health systems. With this merger, that number would rise to above 50%.”

The impact extends far beyond hospitals. The two combined health systems would operate 12 hospitals and more than 250 sites of care statewide, including medical centers, clinics, and hospice. 

Catholic Health Systems, like CHI Franciscan, are bound by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (“ERDs”). Promulgated by religious leaders and not medical professionals, these directives forbid or severely restrict many reproductive and end-of-life health care services. These services include contraception, vasectomies, fertility treatments, hormone treatments, tubal ligations, abortion, Death with Dignity, and advance directives that are contrary to Catholic teachings. Adherence to the ERDs may also increase the likelihood that LGBTQ+ individuals and families will face discrimination in seeking to access health care services consistent with their medical needs.

Prior affiliations between CHI Franciscan and secular health systems have resulted in hospitals and clinics refusing to provide pregnancy terminations – even, in some cases, when a patient is suffering a miscarriage.

These affiliations have also resulted in Death with Dignity care prohibitions – including disallowing doctors from acting as consulting or prescribing physicians under the Death with Dignity Act. “This Act enables terminally ill adults to request medication so they can die on their own terms,” said Judy Kinney, Executive Director for End of Life Washington. “We have seen significant suffering and even violent suicides when Washingtonians cannot access these services.”

When Highline Medical Center became part of the Franciscan Health System (now CHI Franciscan), Highline agreed not to engage in actions that conflict with the ERDs. Similarly, when Harrison Medical Center affiliated with Franciscan Health System, doctors were no longer allowed to prescribe Death with Dignity medications, and the health system prohibited “elective abortions.” 

“If this deal goes through, Virginia Mason will become the latest Washington health system wielding religious doctrine to restrict access to safe and legal health care services,” said Kim Clark, Senior Attorney for Legal Voice. “These restrictions, disproportionately harm women, terminally ill patients, communities of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, low-income populations, and rural communities.” 

This is especially true in Yakima County, where there is a diverse and underserved population, and high rates of STIs and unintended pregnancies. After this merger, the county’s religiously affiliated hospital bed number will go from zero to over 70% – reducing access to reproductive health care.

“We know what is at stake when these mergers occur,” said Lillian Lanier, Political and Organizing Director at NARAL Pro-Choice Washington. “Patients at these hospitals are unable to receive basic health care services. These denials put patients at risk, cause unnecessary delays, increase costs, and at times mean patients are unable to receive certain forms of reproductive health care altogether. Patients and activists are looking for bold leadership from elected leaders to ensure all Washingtonians can get the care they need, no matter where they live."

Everyone should have access to a full range of legal quality health care services. Health systems must prioritize patient needs over religious doctrine. Virginia Mason should refuse to limit the reproductive and end-of-life care they provide. 


ACLU of Washington
Coalition for Inclusive Health Care
End of Life Washington
Gender Justice League
GSBA: Washington's LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce
Legal Voice
NARAL Pro-Choice Washington
Northwest Abortion Access Fund
Northwest Health Law Advocates (NoHLA)
Surge Reproductive Justice
Washington ACOG
Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence