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Alaska pro-life groups reunite after resolving controversy over ‘early induction’ procedure

By Joel Davidson
February 6th, 2008
Catholic Anchor (

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Catholic Anchor) - After several tense years between the Anchorage Archdiocese and the largest pro-life organization in Alaska, 2007 saw Archbishop Roger Schwietz and several prominent Catholic groups begin collaborating again with Alaska Right to Life to help protect unborn human life in Alaska.

On Jan. 19, the renewed efforts culminated in the first-ever statewide teleconference prayer service for those who have been impacted by abortion. Pro-life groups from Juneau, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Kodiak all participated in the service, which marked the 35th year since Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion throughout the country.

This level of collaboration between pro-life Catholic groups and Alaska Right to Life seemed highly unlikely just three years ago, when in January 2005, the Knights of Columbus statewide deputy ordered all Knights councils in the Anchorage Archdiocese to suspend work with Alaska Right to Life.

Early induction stirs controversy

The Knights decided to part ways after Alaska Right to Life distributed a statement critical of Archbishop Schwietz during a 2005 pro-life prayer vigil, which the Knights coordinated.

Archbishop Schwietz led that service at Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery. After the event he received an Alaska Right to Life flier, which asserted that he was allowing Providence Alaska Medical Center to perform abortions. It also stated that Alaska Right to Life “cannot join in any ceremony that includes the archbishop or his diocesan representatives.”

At issue was a nearly two-year controversy over a medical procedure at Providence Alaska Medical Center, which is part of the Seattle-based Providence Health System, operated by the Sisters of Providence.

The Providence procedure, called “early induction,” allowed pregnant women to choose to induce labor in certain limited cases, when an unborn child, suffering from anomalies incompatible with life, reaches the gestational age that would normally allow a healthy child to survive outside the womb.

Early induction was only permitted after both a team of doctors confirmed the child’s condition and a hospital ethics team reviewed the particulars of the case to ensure that inducing labor would conform to Catholic principles.

When it learned of the practice in 2003, Alaska Right to Life began picketing the hospital and claiming publicly that the facility performed abortions. The organization also asked Archbishop Schwietz to halt the procedure, which he has the authority to do.

The archbishop briefly imposed a moratorium on early inductions in late 2003.

Ethicists weigh in

Archbishop Schwietz then enlisted the help of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, a respected Boston organization that frequently provides ethical consultations for bishops to ensure that hospital practices are morally acceptable.

Over the next several months, ethicists from the center worked with Providence leadership to revise the hospital’s policy on early induction.

Consultations continued until all parties believed the policy was fully in compliance with Catholic moral teaching.

In 2004, Archbishop Schwietz lifted the moratorium on early induction at Providence. At the same time he sent a copy of the updated policy to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, asking that they review it to ensure that it lined up with official Catholic doctrine.

Alaska Right to Life feared, however, that the hospital’s guidelines were still unclear and left the door open for potential abuses, such as aborting an unwanted child who might have severe physical deformities.

Tensions begin to resolve

Tension between Alaska Right to Life and the archdiocese began to resolve, however, in late 2006, when Mike Stafford, then president of Alaska Right to Life, met with Archbishop Schwietz to apologize for any actions or comments that his group had made against the archbishop or his character.

By early 2007, the Knights and Archbishop Schwietz finally received a response from Rome regarding the early induction procedure.

“Rome said they accepted our policies but they did have some different wording for the introduction,” Archbishop Schwietz told the Anchor.

The Vatican letter clarified the fact that early inductions are only permitted to save the life of the mother or to try and save the life of the child.

The benefit of having a response directly from Rome is that the local church and Providence can be assured that their policy is in full conformity with the teachings of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Schwietz said.

Early induction still available

After receiving the response from Rome, Archbishop Schwietz met again this past fall with members of the Knights of Columbus and Alaska Right to Life.

“The meeting was a dialogue so I could update them on the document from Rome,” Archbishop Schwietz said. “They also had a chance to hear some of the updates that I have received from Providence, which is that early induction has ceased there.”

Monica Anderson, Providence’s mission director for the Alaska region, confirmed to the Anchor that the hospital has not performed an early induction for more than two years.

She added, however, that the procedure is still available at Providence when all criteria are met.

Anderson is responsible for promoting the mission and core values, including their understanding, meaning and operation, in each of Providence facilities in Alaska.

“We actually err on the side of being too conservative,” she said in response to those who claim that some physicians may not follow the hospital’s early induction policy faithfully.

Anderson also told the Anchor that it should be clear that the updated hospital policy has in no way affected the actual practice of how early inductions are performed at Providence.

“The wording of the guidelines changed as a result of the dialogue with the Bio-Ethics Center but our practices did not need to be altered because we have always been congruent with the Ethical and Religious Directives,” she said.

In some cases, when a pregnant woman desires an early induction but their condition does not meet all of the hospital’s policy requirements, Anderson said those patients are notified that Alaska Regional Hospital will perform the procedure with fewer restrictions.

Providence does not refer patients to Alaska Regional for early inductions Providence refuses to perform. However, Anderson said, in most cases, if not all, the same physicians have individual practices at both Alaska Regional and Providence. In cases where Providence will not allow the physician to perform an early induction, some physicians will simply transfer their patients to Alaska Regional to perform the procedure there.

Finding common ground

After the meeting this past fall with Archbishop Schwietz, Karen Lewis, executive director for Alaska Right to Life, said the hospital’s updated policy seems compatible with her organizations ideals.

She said Alaska Right to Life still has concerns, however, regarding how closely individual physicians follow the policy, as well as the fact that they take patients across town to Alaska Regional to perform early inductions in cases when the Providence policy does not allow it.

She quickly added, though, that she is eager to resume working with the Catholic Church in Alaska.

“I know we are on the same page as far as life goes,” Lewis said. “I think all pro-life groups have the same objective to protect and defend human life from the moment of conception to natural death.”

Ann Curro and her husband Jim spearhead pro-life activities for the Alaska Knights. She said it was important for Knights from around the state to reestablish a good working relationship with Alaska Right to Life.

“We sent out information to Knights statewide that we are all working together again,” she told the Anchor. “The various councils were glad to see relationship renewed.”

She added that other pro-life organizations also wanted to see the Catholic Church working with Alaska Right to Life.

“In this day, we need a united front on the life issues and Alaska Right to Life plays an important part in getting many different organizations to work together,” Curro said.

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