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Mich. Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against Restrictive Policy Directives at Catholic Hospitals

July 7, 2015 — A federal judge in Michigan last week dismissed a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union alleging that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' directives for Catholic hospitals impede proper medical care for pregnant women, Michigan Live reports.

Immediately following the decision, the ACLU filed a notice of appeal to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (Hausman, Michigan Live, 7/1).

Lawsuit Background

The ACLU and ACLU of Michigan filed the suit in 2013 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 baby was pronounced dead two-and-a-half hours after delivery.

The suit argued 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, 3/24/14). Specifically, the suit centered on the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, a set of policies that prevent women from obtaining abortions and prohibit informing women if the procedure is an option.

The lawsuit requested damages and acknowledgement that the conference acted negligently "not only to provide a remedy for the trauma she suffered, but also to prevent other women in her situation from suffering similar harm in the future," according to the complaint.

Reasons for Lawsuit Dismissal

According to Michigan Live, U.S. District Judge Robert Holmes Bell dismissed the suit because federal courts in Michigan do not have control over policy mandates made by the Washington, D.C.-based bishops' conference.

Further, he said courts should not be involved in religious doctrinal decisions, which he said informed the hospital's policy directive. He wrote, "It is not up to the Court to mandate the larger structural and policy reform to Catholic hospitals that Plaintiff seeks; that issue is left to the Church and its tribunals."

Bell said Means could sue medical providers for inadequate care but could not sue religious organizations or leaders for their doctrine.

Meanwhile, Means said the decision was "devastating," but she pledged to "continue to stand up and speak for every woman who's suffered like I have at the hands of religiously affiliated hospitals" (Michigan Live, 7/1).