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U.S. Catholic Bishops Scorched in Lawsuit

DETROIT (CN) - A Catholic hospital in Michigan refused medical care to a woman during a painful, prolonged and dangerous miscarriage, due to its religious policy banning abortion, the woman claims in a federal lawsuit.

Tamesha Means sued the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Health Ministries Chairman Stanley Urban, and former chairpersons Robert Ladenburger and Mary Mollison.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops includes all bishops in the United States and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It publishes the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which prohibit Catholic hospitals from performing abortions in any situation.

"Directive 45 states: 'Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted,'" according to the lawsuit. "'Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion, which, in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo. Catholic health care institutions are not to provide abortion services, even based upon the principle of material cooperation. In this context, Catholic health care institutions need to be concerned about the danger of scandal in any association with abortion providers.'" (Parentheses in complaint).

The directives do not require hospitals to give patients information not deemed "morally legitimate," such as the availability of or the need for pregnancy termination, even when the patient's health or life is in danger and the fetus has no chance of survival, according to the complaint.

Catholic Health Ministries, which is not a party to the lawsuit, is the religious sponsor of Mercy Health Partners, a hospital in Muskegon County. Catholic Health Ministries requires the hospital to adhere to the Conference of Bishops' directives.

Means, 18 weeks pregnant with her fourth baby, was rushed to Mercy Health in December 2010, when her water broke prematurely and she began having contractions. Mercy Health was the only hospital in the county and the only one within 30 minutes of Means' home, according to the complaint.

Means says that though she was in excruciating pain and at risk for an infection, Mercy Health did not tell her that her fetus had virtually no chance of surviving and that terminating the pregnancy was the safest treatment option.

Means had a decreased volume of amniotic fluid due to the premature rupture of her membranes, which exposed her to the risk of a bacterial infection that can cause infertility and death, according to the lawsuit.

In following the bishops' directives, the hospital never discussed the option of terminating Means' pregnancy, failed to tell her that continuing the pregnancy posed a serious risk to her health, or that she could go to another hospital that had no policy against terminating pregnancies. It sent Means home and told her to return for her regular appointment more than a week later, according to the complaint.

Means says she returned the next day, bleeding and with painful contractions, but the hospital again sent her home without discussing any other treatment option.

Means returned to the hospital that night, in extreme pain and with signs of an infection. The hospital prepared to send her home for the third time, when she began to deliver her baby. After the extremely painful breech delivery, Mercy Health discharged Means and told her to arrange for burial or cremation of the baby before going home, according to the lawsuit.

Means says she was devastated, had to endure severe physical pain and to undergo a risky breech delivery that could have been prevented.

She claims she is one of many patients whose health or life has been unnecessarily placed at risk due to the bishops' directives.

A public health surveillance project this year claimed that Mercy Health had failed to induce labor in Means and at least four other women who had miscarried before the fetus was viable and had premature rupture of membranes.

The hospital stood by the decisions, saying they complied with the bishops' directives, according to the complaint.

Means claims the directives "cause pregnant women who are suffering from a miscarriage to be denied appropriate medical care, including information about their condition and treatment options."

She seeks compensatory and punitive damages for negligence.

Means is represented by Brooke Merriweather-Tucker with the American Civil Liberties Union Fund of Michigan.

"They never offered me any options," Means said in a statement released by the ACLU. "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?"

Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement: "The best interests of the patient must always come first and this fundamental ethic is central to the medical profession. In this case, a young woman in a crisis situation was put at risk because religious directives were allowed to interfere with her medical care. Patients should not be forced to suffer because of a hospital's religious affiliation."

Urban, who was out of town, was not available to comment Tuesday.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declined to comment, saying it had not been served with the lawsuit.

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