Health Law

Catholic hospitals' ethics rules caused negligent care for miscarrying woman, says ACLU suit

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The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal action against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, alleging that its ethical guidelines given to Catholic hospitals resulted in negligent care for a miscarrying woman.

According to the Associated Press, the Michigan U.S. District Court action (PDF) maintains Tamesha Means was 18 weeks pregnant when her water broke and she sought treatment at Mercy Health Muskegon, which is the only hospital in her county.

Means was not told that her safest option was inducing labor and terminating the pregnancy, according to the filing, nor that the fetus had “virtually no chance of surviving,” said the ACLU. In pain, she made three emergency visits to the hospital, but was sent home twice, says NBC News. On her third visit, she went into labor, and had a breech delivery. The baby, which was born about six weeks before what is generally considered viable for survival, died. The lawsuit cites a pathology report, which found Means had infections that could result in infertility and other serious health issues.

“I pray to God someone stops this from happening again,” Means, a 27-year-old mother to two other children, is quoted as saying. “My life could have been taken. I was in a very dangerous situation.”

Under the conference’s Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, abortion (defined as “the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus”) is never permitted. However, “operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.”

Bishops have the authority to interpret what these directives mean within their diocese, the AP states, and it’s not unusual for one to find variation in the guidelines for individual cases. According to the Catholic Health Association of the United States, 630 of the nearly 5,000 community hospitals in the country are run by Catholic systems.

A spokesperson for the bishop’s conference said it hadn’t been officially notified about the lawsuit, and based on that could not comment.

Updated on Dec. 6 to fix an editor’s transcription error in the quote from the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

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