ACLU sues US bishops, claims pregnant woman denied appropriate care by Catholic hospital in Muskegon

Dec 2, 2013

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on Friday against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf of a pregnant Michigan woman who miscarried.

The suit claims that Tamesha Means was denied appropriate medical treatment at Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, because the Catholic hospital is required to comply with religious directives written by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The ACLU says the religious directives prohibit the hospital from providing the applicable standard of care or from informing patients about appropriate treatment options.

Mercy Health Partners is the only hospital in Means' county.

Louise Melling is the Deputy Legal Director of the ACLU. She says the ACLU has taken the unusual step of suing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, rather than the hospital. The lawsuit argues that because the Conference issues the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, it is responsible for the harm and trauma that Means and other similarly situated pregnant women have experienced at Catholic-sponsored hospitals.

Means went to Mercy Health Partners when her water broke at 18 weeks of pregnancy.

According to the complaint, the hospital sent her home twice even though she was in severe pain. The ACLU claims that there was virtually no chance that Mean's unborn child could survive and that continuing the pregnancy posed significant health risks. The complaint says that she was not informed of this or that terminating the pregnancy was an option and the safest treatment course.

When Means returned to the hospital a third time in continued distress and with an infection, the hospital again began the paperwork to send her home, but prior to discharge, she miscarried at the hospital.

The lawsuit says that the religious directives prohibit a pre-viability pregnancy termination even when there is little or no chance that the fetus will survive or the health or life of the pregant woman is at risk.

“They direct that Catholic health care facilities adhere to their terms,” Melling said. “They prohibit certain vital services, including abortion, even when the woman is miscarrying and even when continuing the pregnancy risks her health. And they limit doctors' ability even to provide critical information about treatment options.”

"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."

The ACLU says Means' story is not unique. During a teleconference, the ACLU said about one in six hospital beds nationwide are in Catholic hospitals and the number is growing because of hospital mergers.

Officials from the hospital and the Conference of Catholic Bishops declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Virginia B. Gordan, Michigan Radio Newsroom