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ACLU Sues U.S. Catholic Bishops Over Denial Of ‘Proper Health Care’

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed suit against the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) regarding a case in a Muskegon, Mich. hospital. According to the ACLU, Tamesha Means was 18 weeks pregnant in December, 2010, when her water broke. A friend brought her to Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon. Ms. Means subsequently made two more trips to this hospital, and her baby, born prematurely, died.

According to a New York Times piece,

…Dr. Douglas W. Laube, an obstetrician at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, described the care Ms. Means received as “basic neglect.” He added, “It could have turned into a disaster, with both baby and mother dying.”

The A.C.L.U. said it had filed suit against the bishops because there had been several cases in recent years in which Catholic hospital policies on abortion had interfered with medical care.


When a mother’s water breaks this early in a pregnancy, it is a condition known as PROM, preterm premature rupture of membranes. The ACLU suit claims that,”…MHP did not inform Ms. Means that, due to her condition, the fetus she was carrying had virtually no chance of surviving…” However, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians,

…when membrane rupture occurs before 37 weeks’ gestation, it is known as preterm PROM. Preterm PROM complicates approximately 3 percent of pregnancies and leads to one third of preterm births.It increases the risk of prematurity and leads to a number of other perinatal and neonatal complications, including a 1 to 2 percent risk of fetal death.

That contradicts the ACLU’s claim that Ms. Meaks’ baby “had virtually no chance of surviving.” While it may be that Ms. Means’ baby would not have survived under any circumstances, there is no reason to think that abortion was “the safest treatment option.”

Ultimately, what the ACLU seeks to do is rid Catholic hospitals and social service agencies of the USCCB’s “Ethical and Religious Directives,” a set of moral guidelines for all Catholic institutions providing health care services. The purpose of these guidelines are

…twofold: first, to reaffirm the ethical standards of behavior in health care that flow from the Church’s teaching about the dignity of the human person; second, to provide authoritative guidance on certain moral issues that face Catholic health care today.

The Directives state that health care is a “ministry,” based on the teachings and examples of Christ and His care for the sick and dying. The Directives note that we live in a “pluralistic society” and

…Catholic health care services will encounter requests for medical procedures contrary to the moral teachings of the Church. Catholic health care does not offend the rights of individual conscience by refusing to provide or permit medical procedures that are judged morally wrong by the teaching authority of the Church.

The ACLU website lists 9 lawsuits in 2013 involving the Catholic Church and its stance on reproductive morality. Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU. “Medical decisions should not be hamstrung by religious directives.”

The health care system in the U.S. relies heavily on Catholic-run organizations. 1 in 6 hospital patients is cared for in a Catholic facility. More than 5.5 million people receive care annually from Catholic hospitals. In addition, Catholic Charities cares for over 4 million people annually, and serves over 7 million poor and hungry.

Borrowing their term, the ACLU would like to hamstring the Catholic Church by getting rid of the Ethical and Religious Directives that govern decisions made in these institutions. This lawsuit states that the Directives lead to “negligent acts” and risks to women’s health, and assumes that the Catholic Church does not have the right to make moral and ethical decisions based on religious beliefs in its own institutions. If successful, the lawsuit would wipe out the Church’s right to practice the faith as directed by the teaching body of the Church, the bishops. The consequences on the American health care system would be catastrophic.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has made it known that the Catholic Church is strongly behind health care reform in the U.S. He has also made it clear that the Church cannot and will not set aside its beliefs.

We’ve been asking for reform in healthcare for a long time.  So we were kind of an early supporter in this,” Dolan said in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” set to air on Sunday. “Where we started bristling and saying, ‘Uh-oh, first of all this isn’t comprehensive, because it’s excluding the undocumented immigrant and it’s excluding the unborn baby,’ so we began to bristle at that.”

And then secondly, we said, ‘And wait a minute, we Catholics who are among the pros when it comes to providing health care, do it because of our religious conviction and because the dictates of our conscience, and now we’re being asked to violate some of those,’” Dolan added.

The death of a child is a tragedy, and Ms. Means’ suffering should not be taken lightly. Neither, however, should we take lightly the ACLU’s desire to gut the Catholic Church’s ability to practice their First Amendment rights. Charles Kadlac sums the situation up: “…the precedent is clear: when religious beliefs conflict with government decrees, religion must yield.” And if religion yields, America’s liberties are shattered.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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