January 2014 Church & State | People & Events

The American Civil Liberties Un­ion is suing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) after a pregnant woman who sought aid at a Catholic hospital was allegedly exposed to unnecessary suffering during a miscarriage as a result of inadequate care.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Michigan, the ACLU asserted that the USCCB’s Ethical and Religious Directives, which prohibit abortion, result in improper care for pregnant women at Catholic hospitals in some circumstances.

Means v. USCCB was filed on behalf of Tamesha Means. She was rushed to the only hospital in her county when her water broke after just 18 weeks of pregnancy. That hospital was Mercy Health, which is a Catholic health-care provider.

The next day, Means went back to the hospital bleeding and in pain, but she was again sent home. Later that same day she came down with a fever and continued to experience intense pain. When she returned to the hospital she miscarried, and the fetus died.

Doctors who reviewed the case later said Means’ fetus could not have survived, noting that doctors normally induce labor or remove the fetus to protect the mother in cases like this. But Means alleges that her doctors did not tell her the fetus was not viable and that her health was in danger. Church doctrine, she says, interfered with her care.

Dr. Douglas W. Laube, an obstetrician at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, said Means was, at best, treated with “basic neglect. It could have turned into a disaster, with both baby and mother dying,” he said during a telephone conference with reporters.

 “This isn’t about religious freedom, it’s about medical care,” said Louise Mel­ling, deputy legal director of the ACLU.

The New York Times said this suit is unusual because it targets the bishops directly rather than the hospital. The Times also said this represents a new health-care battle for the bishops, who are already heavily involved in challenging the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

Catholic hospitals comprise 17 percent of hospitals beds in the United States, and their reach is growing as more and more secular hospitals merge with Catholic institutions, The Times said.

When such mergers occur, the bishops insist that secular or public hospitals operate under the church’s health-care directives. These directives forbid abortion, ban sterilizing operations and prohibit the distribution of birth control. They also give church officials the right to ignore end-of-life directives that conflict with church dogma.