Pregnant Woman Suffers. You Won't Believe Who's to Blame.

Story Date: 
Dec 11, 2013
By Louise Melling, Director, Center of Liberty; Deputy Legal Director, ACLU

Hospitals that serve one in six Americans adhere to Catholic doctrine that threatens patients' lives. These hospitals are required to follow religious directives issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which allow non-medical professionals to dictate medical care, sometimes at the patient's risk.

Last week, the ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit on behalf of Tamesha Means, who miscarried and was denied appropriate medical treatment because the only hospital in her county is required to abide by Catholic religious directives.

"A woman who is 18 weeks pregnant and who presents with [Ms. Mean's] symptoms... should be told that there's virtually no chance that her fetus will survive and that continuing the pregnancy puts her at risk, and that the safest course of treatment would be to terminate the pregnancy," Dr. Douglas Laube, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin, told NPR. "From the outset, Ms. Means should have been given this information at the very least."

 


 

When you show up at a hospital, in need of medical aid, you expect that you're going to get the care you need — that the doctors and nurses will figure out what's wrong, explain to you the options for treating it, and give you the best medical care possible.

That's what Tamesha Means thought, until she showed up at Mercy Health hospital in Muskegon, Michigan.

Tamesha was only 18 weeks pregnant when her water broke prematurely. She rushed to Mercy Health — the only hospital within half an hour of where she lived. The hospital did not tell her then that she had little chance of a successful pregnancy, that she was at risk if she tried to continue the pregnancy, and that the safest course of care in her case was to end it. The hospital simply sent her home.

She came back the next day, bleeding and in pain, and again was turned away. Again, she was not told of the risks of trying to continue the pregnancy, or what her treatment options were. Tamesha returned yet a third time — by now suffering a significant infection. The hospital was prepared to send her away once more, when she started to deliver.

Tamesha's baby died within hours of being born — at 18 weeks, it never had a chance.

How could something like this happen? Because Mercy Health is Catholic-sponsored, it is required to adhere to the "Ethical and Religious Directives," a set of rules created by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to govern the provision of medical care at Catholic-run hospitals. At hospitals like Mercy Health, the Directives are put above medical standards of care.

The Directives prohibit Catholic-sponsored facilities from providing vital health services and the information patients need to make informed decisions about their health care, and from honoring patients' wishes when they conflict with Catholic directives. This is true even if as in Tamesha's case, compliance with the Directives pose a direct threat to patient health.

Because of the Directives, Tamesha was never told the truth about her situation — that her fetus had little chance of surviving, that by attempting to continue the pregnancy she risked her own health, and that completing the miscarriage and ending the pregnancy was the safest approach for a woman in her condition. All that information was withheld from her. Nor was she told that because of the Directives, the hospital would refuse to provide her the safest course of care — even to protect her health. Tamesha never had the chance to direct the course of her care or make a real decision.

Tamesha is not alone. Across the country, women face the risk of mistreatment as a result of the Directives. This happens often despite the fact that doctors want to give their patients the proper care and information, if only they were allowed to. Indeed, studies show that over half of OB/GYNs working in Catholic-sponsored hospitals have run into conflicts with the Directives.

One doctor, describes a miscarrying patient who was dying before his eyes, septic, with a 106 degree fever, her eyes filling with blood. But even though she was in danger, and the fetus had no chance of survival, because of the Directives, the hospital's policy wouldn't let the doctor treat her by terminating the pregnancy until the fetal heartbeat ceased of its own accord.

Another doctor describes a situation where a woman in the first part of her second trimester arrived at the hospital with a hand sticking out of her cervix. But the fetus had a heartbeat, and so the Catholic-sponsored hospital forbids the doctor from ending the pregnancy. Instead, she was forced to send her patient to a facility 90 miles away. Doctors are also barred from giving their patients full information about their treatment options. Recently, a cardiologist was reprimanded for telling a patient with signs of a potentially fatal condition that if it worsened, the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association would recommend terminating the pregnancy in order to save her life.

That's why we're helping Tamesha seek justice in court. The bishops aren't doctors, and yet they issue rules that tie doctors' hands, preventing them from giving their patients full information about their health care options and, in some cases, preventing them from providing medically appropriate care. That's not right, and it's time to end it.

Read more information about this case at: Tamesha Means v. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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