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Local Case: Catholic Hospitals, Abortions and Standard of Care

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

This isn't our usual appellate fare, but a local district court case may interest you, especially if you've been following other swirling legal conflicts between religious rights and healthcare.

In a lawsuit headed for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, a plaintiff, Tamesha Means, alleges that a local Catholic hospital negligently denied her proper healthcare, and exposed her to unnecessary pain, due to mandates from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which issues the "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services."

Means, whose water broke at 18 weeks, alleges that Mercy Health Partners did not advise her of the best course of treatment (termination of a virtually certain to miscarry pregnancy) and instead repeatedly prescribed drugs and sent her home, until after two days of pain, and three trips to the hospital, she delivered a partially-developed fetus that did not survive.

Catholic Hospitals on the Rise

The Washington Post notes that the case presents an issue that is likely to increase, especially with the recent increase in Catholic hospitals, mostly through high-profile mergers with secular health care systems. In some rural areas, like Muskegon (where Means resides), the Catholic hospital is the only option.

Meanwhile treatment at the hospitals, most notably treatment of reproductive health issues, is guided by the Catholic Bishops' directives, which generally prohibit discussion or recommendation of abortions.

The Post cites studies that show that one in six American patients are treated in Catholic hospitals, that one-third of Catholic hospitals are in rural areas, and that fifteen percent of all hospital beds are in Catholic facilities. More importantly, fifty-two percent of obstetricians who work in Catholic facilities report coming to a patient care conflict with the treatment directives.

Religion and the Standard of Care

Three years after the incident, the Americans Civil Liberties Union took up the case on Means' behalf. ACLU deputy legal director Louise Melling told the Post that the lawsuit directly targets the Catholic facilities' practices. "It certainly alleges that the imposition of the directives in their current fashion violates the duty of care to patients," she said.

"We are committed to defending Americans' right to practice religion. We have a long history of doing that. But this isn't about religious freedom. It's about medical care."

The task for the courts, then, is to determine where the standard of care lies, and whether that standard varies based on the religious orientation of the providing facility. And if a hospital can deny certain treatments for religious reasons, does it perhaps have a duty to transport the patient to the nearest secular facility?

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