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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.


  • 1humanwoman

    This isn’t a matter of practicing one’s own religion, but of forcing others to practice your beliefs. See

    • First, we don’t know the whole story of what Ms. Means was told by the hospital staff or what treatment options she was given. In a stressful situation such as hers, a patient can easily mis-hear and misunderstand what is going on.

      Second, I believe hitting a child with a belt is child abuse. I don’t think anyone should do it. If I saw someone hitting a child with a belt, I would try and stop them. I think this type of behavior should be outlawed. Am I forcing my beliefs on others? Should I simply shrug and say, “Hey, I don’t like it, but if you want to whack your kid with a belt, feel free.”?

      • 1humanwoman

        In the example you give, i don’t think we can assume that the child is a willing participant. However, if a doctor lays out all of the options a woman has and through a shared decision making process, the woman and her doctor determine that an abortion is the best option for her, and then a third part comes along, objects, and forces them to make another decision, that is forcing your beliefs on someone else.
        We do know that Ms. means was sent home with a broken amniotic sac. If the sac breaks and the fetus can survive until it is viable, the woman needs antibiotics and consistent monitoring. The hospital apparently did not think the fetus was viable because they sent Ms. Means home. Thus, they sentenced the fetus to a slow death and Ms. means to excruciating pain. That seems highly unethical to me (though i wouldn’t have forced that belief on Ms. means if she wanted to be in pain as her fetus slowly died).

        • A child is not a willing participant in an abortion either, so the analogy stands.

          Again, we do not know what the hospital did or said to Ms. Means. As you say, the best we can do is say “apparently.” That is speculation. Also, Ms. Means certainly could have sought a second, third or fourth opinion elsewhere. Muskegon, Michigan is not an outpost of civilization – there are plenty of healthcare options within an easy drive. If she thought she had received sub-standard care at this hospital, why did she return two more times?

          • 1humanwoman

            There is information about what Means was told, which was that there was “nothing” they could do. That was not true. And there was no chance of saving the fetus–again, the hospital must have known that or they would have given Means antibiotics and admitted her for monitoring. Are you saying that Means should have known not to believe the doctors when they said there was nothing they could do? I think most of us beleive that our doctors are giving us complete information–usually one seeks a second opinion to confirm that a doctor’s recommendation among two or more options is the best choice. Means was not given options. Here is the account of what occurred (which is on my blog post: But the doctors at Mercy Health, Ms. Means said, did not tell her that the fetus could not survive or that continuing her pregnancy was risky and did not admit her for observation. She returned the next morning, bleeding and in pain, and was sent home again. That night she went a third time, feverish and writhing with pain; she miscarried at the hospital and the fetus died soon after.

          • We know what Ms. Means says. We do not know (and cannot, due to HIPAA laws) what the medical team indeed told her. Ms. Means was in an incredibly stressful situation, and it is hard to remember, understand and fully comprehend what is being told to you in the short time you’re in the ER, you’re in pain (both emotional and physical), and you have medication in your system. It can be overwhelming.

            That being said, it is the responsibility of the patient to make sure he/she does indeed understand what the situation is, and how he/she wants to proceed. Ms. Means had the option of seeking help somewhere else, and if she desired an abortion, she should not have expected it at a Catholic hospital.

          • 1humanwoman

            But she didn’t want an abortion–this was a wanted pregnancy. She needed an abortion to protect her health–how would she know that if no one told her?

          • JohnE

            Poor health is not an intrinsic evil. Murder is.
            Was there was something else the hospital could have done, but didn’t do? Maybe, but that’s a different question. But offering to murder her unborn child would cause a spiritual sickness far worse than any physical sickness. Catholic hospitals treat the whole person, not just the body, or at least that’s what they’re supposed to do.

          • From WebMD:

            Standard treatment for pPROM

            Standard treatment for pPROM includes antenatal corticosteroid
            medicines, which are used to speed up fetal lung maturity at or before 34 weeks
            of pregnancy.

            Other treatment for pPROM

            Other treatment for pPROM may include:

            An observation period or
            expectant management.

            Antibiotics, given to treat or prevent amniotic fluid

            Amniocentesis, which is sometimes used
            to check for infection in the uterus or check to see if the fetus’s lungs are
            mature enough for delivery.

            Starting (inducing) labor with medicine if labor does not start
            naturally. This is meant to speed up delivery and reduce the risk of infection.
            Labor can be induced if there is strong evidence that the fetus’s lungs are
            mature enough, or if you have an infection.

            I don’t see abortion listed here as standard/necessary treatment. The ACLU is using this woman’s case as a political move to get Catholic hospitals to perform abortions.

          • 1humanwoman

            Yes, and the hospital did not do a single one of those things, indicating that they knew the fetus had no chance of survival. The just sent Means home–no observation, no antibiotics. It was too early in the pregnancy to prepare for a live baby, which is why they did not bother administering steroids or doing an amnio. They could have done a labor induction, as mentioned above, which at the early stage of Means’ pregnancy is a way of performing an abortion (so actually the treatment does indirectly mention abortion). If the sac is ruptured and the fetus cannot survive, then an induction/abortion is the way to prevent an infection that could hurt or even kill the woman, as happened to Savita Halappanavar in Ireland.

          • Then sue the hospital and/or staff for medical misconduct/malpractice. What the heck does the USCCB have to do with this? The case is a sham.

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