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Lawsuit Against Catholic Bishops Marks 'New Front' in Religious, Women's Health Care Debates

Lawsuit Against Catholic Bishops Marks 'New Front' in Religious, Women's Health Care Debates

March 24, 2014 — A lawsuit alleging that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' directives for Catholic hospitals impede proper medical care for pregnant women is "a new front" in the debate "over religious liberty, gender equality and reproductive care," ProPublica reports (Martin, ProPublica, 3/20).

Lawsuit Background

The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Michigan filed the suit last year on behalf of Tamesha Means, who in 2010 was rushed to the nearest hospital -- Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, Mich. -- after her water broke when she was 18 weeks pregnant. The fetus had virtually no chance of surviving, and doctors in such a situation typically induce labor or surgically remove the fetus to reduce the woman's chance of infection.

According to the suit, the doctors at Mercy Health did not admit Means for observation or inform her that the fetus was in danger and her own health could be at risk. Means also alleges that she was in "excruciating pain" but was sent home twice without being offered appropriate medical treatment or informed of her options. She returned a third time, at which point she had developed an infection, and began to miscarry as the hospital was preparing her discharge paperwork. The child was pronounced dead two-and-a-half hours after delivery.

The suit argues that USCCB places its religious beliefs ahead of the health and welfare of patients. It also alleges that USCCB is ultimately responsible for the unnecessary trauma and harm suffered by Means and other women in similar situations at other Catholic hospitals (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/3/13).

Bishops' Arguments

The bishops and their lawyers have filed a motion to dismiss the case, according to ProPublica. A hearing on the motion to dismiss is scheduled for May.

In the motion, the bishops have mostly avoided addressing the constitutional issues, instead focusing on procedural details. For example, the bishops stated that ACLU chose the incorrect venue in which to file the case and also should have sued individual bishops in their own dioceses instead of USCCB as a whole.

According to ProPublica, the arguments echo some legal experts' observations that the lawsuit "is at best a long-shot."

Mergers Compound Problems

The issue at the center of the suit -- access to reproductive health services at Catholic facilities -- has been a concern for ACLU and other women's rights advocates since the 1990s. However, the increase in mergers between Catholic hospitals and health systems with secular hospitals has brought more attention to the issue. Some providers have faced challenges complying with the church's directives on contraception, abortion and end-of-life care while still providing professional care to their patients.

According to ProPublica, "[t]he Means case touched a nerve because it seemed to bring together many of the issues that have worried women's advocates the most." In addition, the impact of the mergers is especially significant in places like Muskegon, which only has Catholic hospitals (ProPublica, 3/20).