Suit Claims Religious Directives Put Women’s Health at Risk
December 2, 2013
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NEW YORK and DETROIT— The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan have filed a lawsuit on behalf of a pregnant woman who miscarried and was denied appropriate medical treatment because the only hospital in her county is required to abide by religious directives. The directives, written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, prohibited that hospital from complying with the applicable standard of care in this case.
Tamesha Means rushed to Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, Michigan, when her water broke after only 18 weeks of pregnancy. Based on the bishops’ religious directives, the hospital sent her home twice even though Means was in excruciating pain; there was virtually no chance that her pregnancy could survive, and continuing the pregnancy posed significant risks to her health.
Because of its Catholic affiliation and binding directives, the hospital told Means that there was nothing it could do and did not tell Means that terminating her pregnancy was an option and the safest course for her condition. When Means returned to the hospital a third time in extreme distress and with an infection, the hospital, once again prepared to send her home. While staff prepared her discharge paperwork, she began to deliver. Only then did the hospital begin tending to Means’ miscarriage.
"They never offered me any options," said Means. "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?"
Catholic-sponsored hospitals are required to adhere to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. The directives prohibit a pre-viability pregnancy termination, even when there is little or no chance that the fetus will survive, and the life or health of a pregnant woman is at risk. They also direct health care providers not to inform patients about alternatives inconsistent with those directives, even when those alternatives are the best option for the patient's health. The lawsuit charges that, because of the directives, the USCCB is ultimately responsible for the unnecessary trauma and harm that Means and other pregnant women in similar situations have experienced at Catholic-sponsored hospitals.
"The best interests of the patient must always come first and this fundamental ethic is central to the medical profession," said Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. "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."
Because she received neither the information nor the care appropriate for her condition, Means was unable to direct her course of treatment and suffered unnecessarily. Her story is not unique. Research, including that of Lori R. Freedman, PhD, and Debra B. Stulberg, MD, recounts other stories of patients being denied information and appropriate care at hospitals bound by the bishops’ directives.
"A pregnant woman who goes to the hospital seeking medical care has the right to expect that the hospital’s first priority will be to provide her appropriate care," said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU. "Medical decisions should not be hamstrung by religious directives."