Hundreds demonstrate at Hoag

Wearing purple and carrying picket signs, hundreds of abortion-rights advocates demonstrated outside Hoag Hospital Newport Beach Thursday night in protest of the recent decision to eliminate elective abortions.

They were met by a robust crowd of counter-demonstrators, many of whom made clear they were on board with the hospital's decision to stop providing the service after it affiliated with a Catholic healthcare system.

Signs proclaiming, "Our bodies, ourselves," mixed in with placards thanking Hoag for saving "babies." Alternating chants of "Shame on Hoag!" and "Thank you, Hoag!" echoed along Hospital Road.

An earlier version misspelled Judy Rosener's last name.

"We will never know how many women were damaged by this decision," said Patricia Bellasalma, the California president of NOW, who came from Sacramento and, like many of the protesters, dressed in purple, a color associated with the women's rights movement.

Kristina Garza, 27, of Rancho Cucamonga, stood by Hoag, saying, "We are appreciative of their desire to save lives."

In a statement Thursday, Hoag spokeswoman Nina Robinson said the decision to stop performing elective abortions was made after an extensive review of all hospital services, which found that fewer than 100 were performed in a year, out of an estimated 20,000 or more countywide.

In announcing the policy in May, the hospital noted that studies have found a correlation between low volume of procedures performed and low quality of care.

"We respect the people and points of view in our community, and it is unfortunate that a decision made with the community's best interest in mind has been misrepresented as part of a larger political agenda," Robinson said in the statement. "It simply is not."

Though there was some shouting, arguing and honking by passers-by, the protest remained free of physical conflict as of 8 p.m. Police presence was minimal.

Large-scale protests are fairly uncommon in modern-day Newport Beach – though some recently protested dock fees at the Civic Center and President Obama drew demonstrators when he visited Corona del Mar in February 2012.

Indeed, abortion rights advocate John Goodman, 73, of Garden Grove, said he and his wife are not the types who "stand on street corners" protesting, but "This is important."

Not all were standing. Some knelt and prayed the Hail Mary. During the prayer, many on the abortion-rights side chanted "se-par-ate church and state!"

"Hoag is a private hospital, they're allowed to make their decisions, so I don't get the separation of church and state signs," said Mission Viejo resident Monica Martin, who held a sign with a picture of a fetus and an angelic looking boy in black and white and a heart that said, "Love them both."

At one point a group of high school students ran toward abortion opponents, chanting: "We're pro-life, read all about it, we're pro-life we're gonna shout it!"

They were met with a retort by abortion-rights advocates: "Get an education!"

Signs and symbolism were everywhere on the warm night.

Costa Mesa Councilwoman Wendy Leece, who had her five children at Hoag, held a placard that read, "Thank you, Hoag, for protecting life and not offering abortion services."

"It's their right, it's their choice, to not offer this service," she said of Hoag's decision.

But Donna Dawson of Newport said, "It's a funny business decision to turn away business."

"Religious leaders shouldn't expect to control women's bodies," she said. "I want to control my body and my health."

Rebecca Agnew, 32, wearing a scrub top, works in her father's medical office.

Though abortion is available elsewhere in Orange County, she said women value being able to "stick with their own doctors" during an emotionally difficult time, and that abortions sometimes involve severe abnormalities that require the work of top physicians.

Judy Rosener of Newport Beach said she is withdrawing her financial support from the hospital she's been visiting for 55 years.

"What really surprises me is that Hoag, which is such a responsible hospital, is doing something that would offend so many of its patients," she said.

Paco Frausto, 42, of Huntington Beach, had two signs. One said "Life is a gift" and the other was shaped like a present.

"It's such a simple message," Frausto said. "Life is sacred from the moment of conception."

Some remembered the abortion protests of the Reagan years. Brigid Lucia protested abortion outside of Hoag in the 1980s. On Thursday, she stood in support of the hospital.

"I love it. I applaud them for the courage," she said.

The hospital's policy change, which sparked an outcry among doctors and women's advocates throughout the county, came in the wake of Hoag's affiliation with Catholic healthcare giant St. Joseph Health System. That deal was completed in February, with the policy change on elective abortion announced in May.

Hoag officials insist that the decision was a business one involving a service for which there is low demand. But documents and interviews show that Hoag administrators knew that adhering to St. Joseph Health's "Statement of Common Values" was a condition of the affiliation deal.

"This organization takes the dignity of life and applies it very specifically to, again, beliefs around the taking of life … which, as you read in the Statement of Common Values, relates to two specific areas," Dr. Richard Afable, head of Covenant Health Network, said in an interview Thursday. "One would be euthanasia, the second would be direct abortions.

"Those are two areas, according to our statement of common values, that we hold as sacrosanct. They are areas that are required of ourselves and anyone that we would work with."

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