The ACLU sues the US Catholic bishops

The ACLU is suing the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf of a pregnant woman who suffered because of their rules they enforce on all Catholic hospitals that prevent physicians from giving patients all the information and options they need to make a decision.

The story of Tamesha Means and her miscarriage three years ago, if it happened the way her lawyers claim it did, is truly awful: Means was 18 weeks pregnant when her water broke and she was rushed to a hospital in Muskegon, Mich. The fetus wasn’t viable, and the pregnancy — Means’ third — was doomed.

But doctors at the hospital, part of the Catholic healthcare network known as Mercy Health Partners, didn’t tell her that, Means’ lawyers say. Instead of the normal course of treatment — inducing labor and terminating the pregnancy to stave off potentially risky complications — Means was allegedly kept in the dark about her condition, given painkillers, and sent home.

Bleeding and wracked with pain, she returned to Mercy twice over the next day or so and received more or less the same response, her lawyers claim. Just as she was about to be sent home a third time, by now feverish from a severe infection, she began to deliver. The baby died.

The case has received an enormous amount of attention because of who Means’ attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union chose to sue last November: not her doctors or the hospital but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

According to the suit, Means’ alleged mistreatment came to light in late 2012 or early 2013 when an unidentified researcher working on a federally funded project at Mercy uncovered what she said were not one, but five instances in which doctors there failed to terminate the pregnancies of women who were clearly miscarrying.

When the researcher asked hospital officials to explain, they allegedly told her that they were following the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care, or ERDs — guidelines that govern medical treatment at every Catholic hospital and health system in the United States.

The bishops are defending themselves in a cowardly way (what a surprise!). Rather than trying to justify their rules which are presumably obtained from their god, they are trying to escape on procedural grounds, saying that this case was filed in the wrong jurisdiction and against the wrong targets and that the statue of limitations has expired.

Unfortunately experts seem to think that the ACLU’s case is a long shot since the UCCB is somewhat removed from the actual malpractice even if it was their rules that resulted in this treatment.


  1. says

    This is akin to the Bush administration blaming Abu Ghraib on “bad apples”. They’re blaming the lower ranks to absolve themselves of responsibility, to avoid admitting from whom and where they learnt how to abuse those in their charge.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    …Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care, or ERDs …

    Pick one or the other, bishops -- you can’t claim both.

  3. Pteryxx says

    Similarly, the doctors who put their patients first are the ones to get reprimanded or fired. The ones who are complicit, those are the keepers.

    Reynertson said that gag policies like Mercy’s are “absolutely” common — and are becoming more so as Catholic health-care systems gobble up other providers in a merger boom touched off by health-care reform. “What’s unusual about this case is that you have it in writing,” Reynertson said. “Usually, the policies are not so clear cut.”

    But vague gag rules may be just as problematic, Reynertson added, especially at secular hospitals and practices, like Demos’s, that find themselves under Catholic control. “People tend to overreact to keep their jobs. This is what we’ve heard many times — the nurse in the emergency room who is suddenly very nervous about that pregnancy emergency because there’s a heart beat. Doctors become nervous, hospital administrators become nervous. It’s a chilling effect.”

    Also unusual is that Demos is a heart specialist, suggesting that the gag rules can have a broader reach than many people realize. “Usually you would expect to see this kind of thing happening to an OB/GYN” — the doctors who have historically been most likely to come into conflict with the ERDs, Silverstein said.

  4. raven says

    I would never recommend anyone going to a Catholic hospital if they have an alternative. Way too many horror stories and they never end. Some of which I’ve seen myself. There is always another one every week or month somewhere.

    People are gradually becoming aware of it.

    Here on the coast, a Catholic hospital chain tried to buy a rural, nearly broke small county hospital. The deal was on track until the residents starting speaking up. A lot of them spoke up.

    The Catholic chain backed down pretty quickly.

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