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ACLU Sues US Bishops Over Catholic Hospital Ethics

Tuesday, 03 Dec 2013 11:49 AM

By Lisa Barron

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A wave of mergers between Catholic and secular hospital systems is raising questions about whether ethical guidelines for Roman Catholic hospitals are to blame for negligent care of pregnant women.

The issue is at the center of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in U.S. District Court in Michigan late last week, reports The Washington Post.

The lawsuit argues that the bishops' religious directives banning discussion or performance of abortions are responsible for negligent care of patients such as Michigan woman Tamesha Means, who filed the suit.

Means was 18 weeks pregnant in 2010 when her water broke and a friend drove her to the nearest hospital, Mercy Health Partners, a Catholic hospital in rural Muskegon.

According to the suit, despite the fact that Means was in severe pain, she was not told that "the safest treatment option was to induce labor and terminate the pregnancy" because the hospital was following the edicts of the conference.

"I told them, 'I need you guys to help me.' They told me there was nothing they could do," Means, then 27 and the mother of two, told the Post.

After her second discharge, Means said, she returned to the hospital and gave birth, but her baby died less than three hours later.

The ACLU said the pathology report found Means had infections that can result in infertility or other damage and that she "suffered severe, unnecessary, and foreseeable physical and emotional pain."

"As the number of Catholic hospitals increases, we're highlighting the way they can constrain care," Louise Melling, ACLU deputy legal director, explained to the newspaper.

"The suit is significant in that it's calling attention to what is happening at these hospitals. In some instances, the directives are governing care rather than medical guidelines," she said.

A study conducted last year by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology
found that more than half of obstetricians practicing in Catholic hospitals said they had had a conflict over religious policies.

"The most concerning conflicts I've heard about tend to revolve around restrictions on sterilization and obstetric complications," Lori Freedman, a medical sociologist and author of a recent report published in the American Journal of Bioethics Primary Research, told the Post. "In a non-Catholic hospital you would talk about various options — if you want to miscarry naturally, induce labor, or do you want us to do a surgical removal."

The conference's "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services" bars abortion and other procedures that contradict Catholic doctrine, but each bishop can interpret the directives in his own diocese, reports The Associated Press.

University of Illinois Professor Robin Fretwell Wilson, who specializes in family and health law, told The AP that outcome of the lawsuit would depend partly on whether it can prove the conference of bishops had direct control in this case or in other Catholic hospitals.

"It's so many layers removed," she said, that she has "a difficult time buying" that the bishops' conference is legally responsible.

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