The news that the deal was off was cheered by activists who had argued against it, while members of antiabortion groups expressed dismay.
Rita Poley, an Elkins Park resident who created a popular Facebook page opposing the merger, said she had been on the phone all afternoon sharing details with well-wishers.
"I am so invigorated and so proud of our community," Poley said.
Members of the Pro-Life Union of Southeastern Pennsylvania, based in Oreland, said they would continue to press Abington to stop performing abortions. Members have been holding prayer vigils outside Abington Memorial Hospital on Old York Road for more than 30 years.
"Abortion is not health care," said Edel Finnegan, the group's executive director. "It is not something that women need."
The hospital has said it performs 50 to 60 abortions a year, many of which involve serious maternal complications or fetal defects. But Pat Stanton, another member of the Pro-Life Union, criticized the use of the word defect. In protest, one year he and other group members took children with Down syndrome and their parents to testify at an Abington board meeting.
At 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, one Abington physician, Robert Michaelson, said he was heading to a meeting called by the hospital administration to update the medical staff.
An obstetrician-gynecologist at the hospital for 33 years and past president of its medical staff, Michaelson said he was "relieved" the two sides had called off the move.
"I'm sorry we went through this process, but maybe we all learned from it," Michaelson said. "I'm overwhelmed by the outpouring of community interest in the hospital. I hope this stimulates the hospital's interest in the community."
Mark Horman, a retired Abington physician who was at the hospital for 30 years, said the system's chief executive, Laurence Merlis, should resign because he had "probably lost the confidence of the community."
"I'm very pleased with the result, and sorry it had to happen in the first place," Horman said. "Reasonable people prevailed."
Abington, which employs 6,100, is the larger system, with $783 million in revenue in the year ended June 30, 2011. During the same period, Holy Redeemer, with 4,000 employees, had $357 million in revenue.
The two systems were seen as complementary because Abington, which also owns Lansdale Hospital, provides a higher level of surgical and other acute care, while Holy Redeemer is known for its experience in home care and long-term care for the elderly.
The complete statement from the two health systems read as follows:
"Abington Health and Holy Redeemer Health System have decided to end discussions regarding a potential partnership to create a larger health system. Together we had a bold vision that we believe would have served our community well. While we are disappointed, we believe this decision is in the best interest of both organizations. Abington Health and Holy Redeemer Health System will continue to seek opportunities to enhance the health of the communities we serve."
The proposal for a joint health system had been criticized both inside and outside Abington Health. Last week, about 150 physicians affiliated with Abington Memorial met largely in opposition to a merger. Among other concerns, doctors said they were disappointed that Abington and Redeemer did not consult them before signing a letter of intent.
External opponents of the deal sent vehement letters and e-mails to Merlis, the Abington chief executive. U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.), whose district is home to the primary facilities of both parties, also lobbied hospital executives to retain reproductive health services.
Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein, an Elkins Park resident who was among the opponents, praised doctors and other medical staff for putting their jobs on the line.
"I think this experience has given me great faith in our community, and in people's willingness to stand up for what they believe is right," Ezekiel-Fishbein said. "Especially the doctors who are willing to basically say to their bosses, 'We're not OK with this.' "
Meanwhile, Stanton, the abortion opponent, vowed to keep up his fight.
"We're devastated," he said. "We got our hopes up."
Staff writers Marie McCullough and Meeri Kim contributed to this article.
Contact staff writer Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or firstname.lastname@example.org.