- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

LANCASTER, Pa. Pennsylvania's Lancaster County has been known as the Orange County of the east: heavily conservative, Republican and affluent. Wealthy Mennonite farmers in their pickup trucks jostle black Amish buggies on the county's rural byways crisscrossing the dairy farms that supply much of Philadelphia's daily milk.

The county's demographics show why the local Planned Parenthood clinic has encountered vociferous opposition in its bid to open the county's first abortion facility. In addition to the usual lineup of opposing clergy and politicians, Planned Parenthood of the Susquehanna Valley has an extra set of foes: Lancaster County's five hospitals.

In what may be a situation unique to the nation's 2,042 abortion facilities, a clinic is being blocked by a cadre of health institutions.

Nancy Osgood, president of the Planned Parenthood clinic, says the hospitals have abandoned the agency.

"Rather than deal with abortion as a medical issue, they're dealing with it as a political issue," she says.

According to Pennsylvania law, any clinic wishing to perform abortions must be registered with the state health department. The health department requires a "transfer agreement" with at least one local hospital. This is a signed statement obligating the hospital to care for any woman whose abortion goes awry at the clinic.

The hospitals say they won't turn away any woman from Planned Parenthood who shows up at their doors, but they won't sign a statement saying so.

Two of the hospitals in the city of Lancaster, St. Joseph's and Community Hospital, are owned by a Florida organization that has flatly stated it will not work with Planned Parenthood.

Lancaster General, the trauma center for the county, says it doesn't feel a transfer agreement is necessary. The hospital had an agreement with Planned Parenthood that expired in 1998, which its directors refuses to renew. A well-known opponent of abortion, State Sen. Gibson Armstrong, sits on the hospital's board.

Hospital spokesman John Lines insists the institution is neutral on the abortion issue but that its board members live in the community and reflect its wishes. Lancaster General owns Columbia Hospital, an institution 12 miles west of town that also refuses to sign a transfer agreement.

As for the fifth hospital, Joanne Eshelman, spokeswoman for Ephrata Community Hospital 24 miles northeast of Lancaster, demurs on whether her hospital board opposes abortion.

But she says, "People in the community have supported us in our stance."

At one point, the clinic obtained a transfer agreement from a York, Pa., hospital. A debate ensued as to whether York, which is 28 miles from downtown Lancaster, was really a 30-minute drive. A test drive by pro-life activists with TV crews in tow revealed the journey takes 46 minutes.

Earlier this year, a county judge ruled that Planned Parenthood did not have the proper zoning for abortion purposes at its brick facility in a tree-lined residential area. Although the agency has been at the site on South Lime Street since 1971, abortions would be a "new use," the city says.

Planned Parenthood insists abortions are a necessary use, as they are hard to obtain in Pennsylvania. Ninety-two percent of the state's abortions are in six counties and the cities of Scranton and Erie have no clinics at all.

"There's a misperception that abortion is widely available on demand," says spokesman Pat Brogan. "That's not the truth. Providers are continuing to decline. Abortion is less and less accessible."

Plus, the 1989 Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act one of the country's strictest state abortion laws mandates counseling by a physician, followed by a 24-hour waiting period, before a woman can obtain an abortion.

The county judge's ruling has been appealed to the state Commonwealth Court for a hearing in front of three judges set for Thursday in Harrisburg, the state capital.

Meanwhile, the state health department has announced its decision on the transfer agreement is on hold pending a ruling on the zoning.

"What the hospitals did was a clear recognition of the sentiments of the community," says Michael Geer, president of the group Lancaster United for Life.

Known by some as the "northern Bible Belt," Lancaster County is populated by Catholics, conservative Protestants and America's best-known community of Amish. While other Pennsylvania communities have diminished, Lancaster County, population 430,000, has boomed. It is in the 16th congressional district, represented by Republican Joseph Pitts, one of the House's more adamant abortion opponents.

"The central fabric of Lancaster County is protective of life," says Immo Sulyok, a local land-use consultant. "When there was a public announcement about an abortion facility, a number of people expressed alarm."

Opponents held demonstrations, candlelight vigils, took out newspaper ads, formed a union of churches, and staged demonstrations, prayer vigils and even an exorcism in front of the clinic.

"Lancaster is extremely geocentric," says Diane Moore, secretary/ treasurer of LUFL. "They think they are the center of the universe. Because of that, it's a huge deal that people don't want abortions in this county.

"There's an incredible not-in-my-back-yard factor here."

Two years ago this month, a local newspaper splashed a banner headline on its front page: "Planned Parenthood to offer abortions in Lancaster." The abortion service was for the estimated 600 women each year who must travel outside the county either to York or Harrisburg to get abortions.

The news galvanized abortion opponents. One group organized strategy sessions at Lapp's Family Restaurant in Lancaster to form LUFL. A local doctor persuaded 65 fellow physicians to sign a newspaper ad calling abortion "bad medicine."

"This is a uniquely conservative religious area," says Jim Huber, LUFL vice president, adding that the community also has fought off pornography shops.

Planned Parenthood President Nancy Osgood says her clinic's operations have plenty of community support. She commissioned a opinion poll in January that revealed that of the 497 county residents polled, 37 percent were pro-life, 32 percent were pro-choice and 24 percent believed abortion should be legal under certain circumstances.

"We raised a half-million dollars in support for this, mostly from the county," she said. Gesturing at a church group demonstrating outside her clinic, she said, "They do not represent all the religious thinking in Lancaster County."

But the Rev. Chip Toews, the pastor of New Covenant Christian Church in Lancaster who was demonstrating outside on the sidewalk, disagrees. Local clergy tolerated the clinic until they announced plans for abortions, he says. Some 165 clergy in the county belong to LUFL's pastoral committee.

"What's legal isn't always moral," Mr. Toews says. "It wasn't too long ago that it was legal to sell blacks in this country."

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