The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, alleging that the bishops’ harsh standards for reproductive health services are forcing Catholic hospitals to deliver substandard care to their patients. It’s the first case of its kind that goes after the bishops directly.
The national organization is suing on behalf of a Michigan woman who was denied the full range of information related to her miscarriage when she sought care at a Catholic hospital in 2010.
Tamesha Means’ water broke when she was just 18 weeks pregnant, so a friend rushed her to the closest hospital, Mercy Health Partners. In that type of situation, the fetus isn’t likely to survive — so a non-Catholic hospital would have offered to perform what’s called a “therapeutic abortion,” safely ending the doomed pregnancy and preventing Means from suffering any additional pain. But that’s not allowed at a place like Mercy Health Partners, where the Catholic bishops’ strict ethical guidelines prevent the staff from providing any type of abortion care.
The doctors at Mercy Health Partners didn’t tell Means that abortion was an option, and didn’t refer her to an institution that would perform that kind of procedure. They simply gave her medication to stop the contractions and sent her home. Means returned to the hospital again the next day, bleeding and in pain, and was told there was nothing the staff could do for her. She returned a third time — at which point she had developed an infection — and finally delivered a premature child that died within hours of birth.
“I was in terrible pain,” Means said in an interview with the Washington Post this week. “I was tired. I was frustrated. I still had no answers as to why they did nothing to help me, why they didn’t go ahead and induce my labor when they knew my baby wasn’t going to make it. They left me in pain for those days.”
“Tamesha Means didn’t get the information and the care to which she was entitled,” Louise Melling, the ACLU’s deputy legal director, told ThinkProgress. “We certainly allege that her care was compromised because the hospital was adhering to the Ethical and Religious Directives for health care that are promulgated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.”
The “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” forbid the staff at Catholic-affiliated facilities from performing any of the medical services that violate Catholic teaching. That includes abortion care, sterilization, and some infertility treatments. And the directives also apply in situations like Means’, when a woman’s wanted pregnancy goes wrong and she may need emergency reproductive care.
“This case is about a woman whose water broke and who went to the hospital seeking care in the face of that,” Melling pointed out. That’s a little different than a woman who knows she wants an abortion and is specifically seeking out that procedure. When women like Means go to the hospital in an emergency, they may not even realize that facility won’t offer them the full range of options — many of them simply assume that any doctor in any hospital will give them the treatment they need.
“The story isn’t just about Tamesha,” Melling continued. “The story is about what’s happening to women facing miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, and other issues in their pregnancy who then find themselves in Catholic hospitals, where the physicians and the staff are bound by the directives.”
Indeed, the clash between the Catholic directives and reproductive care is becoming an increasingly serious barrier to women’s access to health services. The Catholic Health Association (CHA) is a huge network with more than 600 hospitals across the country. The CHA estimates that about one in six patients in the U.S. is now cared for in a Catholic hospital. One-third of these religious hospitals are located in rural areas, where there may not be any nearby alternatives. And the Catholic hospital network is continuing to expand — often by merging with secular facilities, a move that typically halts abortion care in facilities that used to be able to provide it.
Medical professionals often get caught in these crossfires. Even when doctors want to provide the best medical care to their patients, the official directives handed down by the Catholic bishops can prevent them from doing so. Several studies have documented the conflicts that can arise in OB-GYN care at Catholic-affiliated hospitals.
Outside of the United States, these type of issues have come to a head in deeply Catholic countries where the entire medical system must adhere to these religious guidelines. For instance, Savita Halapannavar’s tragic death made national headlines after she was denied an emergency abortion in an Irish hospital last year. In the Dominican Republic, a pregnant 16-year-old died after being denied life-saving cancer treatment because it would have harmed her fetus. A dying Salvadoran woman was denied abortion care for months as her health continued to deteriorate — and was finally able to end her doomed pregnancy only after she was far enough along that the country could claim the procedure was a “C-section.” And in Chile, an 11-year-old rape victim was denied an abortion even though she was too young to safely carry the pregnancy.
The timing of the ACLU’s lawsuit — just a few weeks before Christmas — may create a stir among the far right, which frequently accuses the organization of attacking organized religion and waging a “War on Christmas.” Milling is quick to dismiss that narrative.
“At the ACLU, we’re staunch defenders of religious freedom,” Milling told ThinkProgress. “Of course, religious freedom also includes a freedom not to have religion imposed on you. But this is even more fundamental than that — it’s not about religion, it’s about medical care.”