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Eureka physician Lee Leer about had a conniption recently when he heard through the grapevine that St. Joseph's Health System was going to ban condoms. St. Joe's, Leer heard, had phoned Six Rivers Planned Parenthood to tell it not to bring condoms and birth control educational materials to the hospital's future community health fairs. (The next one is Oct. 4 in Fortuna).

Leer wrote a letter-to-the-editor. In it, he said that in the past, despite the Catholic Church's long-time stance against birth control, "the local Health System leadership (professional administrators) and sponsorship (the Sisters of St. Joseph) were able to separate Church dogma from public health reality."

He also noted that California law requires St. Joe's to pay for birth control for its employees. And so, he said, it struck him "as odd and entirely wrong that suddenly St. Joseph's is attempting to suppress a secular entity (SRPP) from even offering health education about birth control (condoms, pills, IUD's, etc.)." He proposed a community response: Withhold from donating to the hospital's new-construction fund.

St. Joseph's is part of the health care ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. Leer wrote that since the passing of the system's long-time local representatives Sisters Ann and Peggy, with whom his practice had enjoyed years of "invigorating and heartwarming" discussions about health care, there seems to be a "new generation of Health System leadership [that], unfortunately, does not appear to know how to focus its energies for the benefit of the community."

But Six Rivers Planned Parenthood CEO Denise Vanden Bos seemed reluctant last week to criticize St. Joe's.

"We've always had a really good relationship with St. Joseph's," said Vanden Bos. "And, we understand [the birth control-info ban] is not a local decision."

SRPP's director of education, Debbe Hartridge, likewise downplayed the decision -- although, she did say that the last time she can remember someone specifically requesting that SRPP not bring condoms to a health fair was in the early 1990s at the Bayshore Mall. But she praised St. Joe's health fair coordinator Brian Olson -- he's the one who called her about the condoms -- as having always been "really helpful."

"My initial response was that this is going to be a challenge for us, because the biggest part of our mission is preventing unplanned pregnancy," she said. "But then I decided that we could comply with this request. We have lots of other information we can bring, about sexually transmitted diseases, breast health, parent-child communication, healthy relationships."

Hartridge said she isn't that worried about locals' access to birth control information because it's available from other venues in Humboldt's communities. (Oddly enough, one can even tap right into a highly informative text on birth control methods on St. Joseph's own website). But, looking at the big picture, she does worry about backsliding. In the early 1990s, California had the highest teen birthrate. Then a state program that funds low-income family planning began; the teen birth rate has since dropped 40 percent.

"Even in California, when the Catholic hospitals take over public health care systems there can be restrictions placed on the kind of care that's provided," she said. "It's a reminder to us that when you have a powerful entity that affects many people's lives, there is the possibility someone's care will be restricted and that someone may be harmed by care not provided."

Perhaps noteworthy, in this vein, is St. Joe's casting off of Fortuna's Redwood Women's Health Center earlier this year, forcing it into private practice. St. Joseph CEO Joe Mark was quoted in the Times-Standard as naming financial reasons for the decision, as well as St. Joe's policy against providing birth control -- one of the services the center provides.

St. Joe spokesperson Courtney Hunt-Munther said last week that the request for SRPP not to bring condoms and birth control information to the hospital's health fairs "just goes along with the Catholic Church."

"It's not a new thing," Hunt-Munther said. "It's our understanding they didn't bring [birth control information] in the past. [Olson] just wanted to make sure they didn't bring any stuff in the future. Because that's been our policy."

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Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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