"It doesn't address the end-of-life issues," she said, referring to concern that Catholic convictions will alter such choices at Abington. "And as long as they continue to refuse to perform abortions, it's totally unacceptable."
In last week's announcement of the proposed venture with Holy Redeemer Health System, Merlis said the secular hospital had agreed to stop performing abortions but said nothing about other religious restrictions.
In addition to objecting to the abortion ban, critics have demanded to know what other services Abington might have to discontinue as part of the merger - and threatened to stop using the system if it did.
"Jewish tradition mandates an abortion in the event that carrying a fetus to term would endanger the life of the mother," wrote eight rabbis who lead congregations in eastern Montgomery County, in a letter hand-delivered to Merlis. By discontinuing abortion services, Abington "will lose its place as a true community-based institution."
Beth Share of Rydal e-mailed Merlis: "You portray this as a decision to stop providing abortions, but it goes much farther than that, doesn't it? To imply otherwise is dishonest at least, but more clearly seems deceitful."
In the statement issued Friday, Abington Health said it "will continue to provide contraceptive services and counseling, tubal ligations, and vasectomies." Abington Reproductive Medicine, a prominent infertility practice affiliated with the hospital, will also continue as is.
All of those services are forbidden under the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' ethical directives for Catholic health care facilities. In traditional mergers, the secular hospital agrees to abide by the Catholic rules.
In 2009 the bishops' conference warned Catholic institutions not to go into partnerships that involve them "with the wrongdoing of other providers."
But some recent mergers around the country suggest dogma can take a backseat to the economic realities of new reimbursement methods, cost containment efforts, and health care reform.
MergerWatch, a New York City-based advocacy group that says it has helped to stop, undo or modify 59 mergers over 15 years, has followed several deals like Abington's - in which the secular partner agreed to stop doing abortions but continued other "forbidden" medical services such as sterilizations.
That was the model in Seattle, where Swedish Health Services and Providence Health, a Catholic system, last year announced plans for "an innovative affiliation" in Western Washington.
"It's a new trend we're seeing. This is a joint venture. It's a looser arrangement than a full-fledged merger," said Sheila Reynertson, MergerWatch advocacy coordinator.
She added that to compensate for the loss of abortion services, Swedish announced it would help Planned Parenthood establish a new clinic adjacent to the hospital" for women who need hospital-level abortion care.
Abington's Friday statement said it was joining Holy Redeemer to form a secular, regional system to develop "innovative methods of care."
In a separate statement, Holy Redeemer said decisions "are being made jointly . . . with the goal of balancing Abington's rich heritage and the religious tradition of Holy Redeemer."
Holy Redeemer's system - which includes continuing-care facilities, nursing homes, hospices, and low-income rental housing, as well as a 242-bed hospital - had an operating loss of $2.8 million over nine months ending in March and a "negative" financial outlook from Moody's Investors Service.
Abington Health - which includes 665-bed Abington Memorial and 125-bed Lansdale Hospital - had a $16 million operating profit for the year ending June 30, 2011.
Money, critics contend, is the real driving force.
"In obstetrics, we are responsible for two patients at the same time," Abington obstetrician-gynecologist Sherry L. Blumenthal wrote to Merlis. "We work very hard to optimize the health care of both. However, there are medical reasons where terminating a pregnancy is more ethical and moral than refusing to terminate it.
"It is apparent," she said of the abortion restriction, "that this was not a medical decision, but a financial one."
Contact Marie McCullough at 215-854-2720 or firstname.lastname@example.org.