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Catholic Bishops’ Healthcare Directives Put Women’s Lives At Risk, ACLU Files Lawsuit

Catholic bishops sued over hospital's failure to treat miscarriage.

This Catholic hospital failed to treat this woman’s life-threatening miscarriage, due to religious directives issued by the Bishops. Now, she’s suing them. Photo of Tamesha Means from the ACLU via NBC News.

On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. At issue is the directives on abortions which the conference issues to Catholic medical facilities.

The only hospital available to a Michigan woman was a Catholic one.

In December of 2010, a Michigan woman who was 18 weeks pregnant sought medical care at a hospital after her water broke. She went to the only hospital in her county, Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, Mich. The woman, Tamesha Means, didn’t realize it was a Catholic facility.

Ms. Means’ fetus had virtually no chance of surviving once her water broke. However, the development opened her to the danger of serious, life-threatening infections. The proper medical intervention in such a case is to induce labor. The fetus must be expelled, or surgically removed, for the woman’s safety. Ms. Means wasn’t told of the risks or given the option of medical intervention. Instead, Mercy Health sent her home.

The next morning, Ms. Means returned to the hospital, bleeding and in pain. She was sent home again. That same night, she made a third trip to the hospital, this time with a fever as well as severe pain. As the hospital was in the process of sending her home yet again, she began to miscarry and was, at last, given medical attention. She said of her multiple journeys to Mercy Health:

They never offered me any options. They didn’t tell me what was happening to my body. Whatever was going on with me, they discussed it amongst themselves. I was just left to wonder, what’s going to happen to me?

The woman’s care did not meet ‘basic medical standards.’

At a news conference announcing the lawsuit, Dr. Douglas Laube, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin, said:

It’s clear to me that Mercy Health Partners neglected to treat Ms. Means according to basic medical standards, and as such prolonged her suffering and jeopardized her health. While we’re all entitled to our religious beliefs, hospitals should not be entitled to impose their religious beliefs on patients and medical staff who do not share them.

This is a crucial issue for women across the nation. Catholic hospitals are merging with secular ones at a rapid rate. Currently, one out of six hospital beds is part of a Catholic system. In states like Washington, which is experiencing a huge number of mergers, over half of the hospital beds are expected to become part of Catholic health services. According to the ACLU, this means 10 counties out of Washington’s 39 will soon contain nothing but Catholic hospitals.

The danger for pregnant women is extreme.

The danger for women can’t be overstated. Item 45 of the bishops’ “Ethical and Religious Directives For Catholic Health Care Services” reads:

Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted.

Never. This directive would apply to inducing labor when the fetus is not viable but threatens the mother’s health, as in Ms. Means’ case. The bishops’ religious directives apply to the healthcare of women who do not share the same religious beliefs. Yet they may have no other choice for care in their part of the country. As Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU said:

This isn’t about religious freedom, it’s about medical care.

It’s about women’s health and their lives. If the new pope really believes in love, compassion, and the sanctity of human life, perhaps he needs to call off the Church’s (watch) dogs and ensure that women get the vital care they need.