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Appeals court denies appeal in case challenging at Catholic hospital policy directives on reproductive care

September 12, 2016 — A federal appeals court last week denied an appeal in a lawsuit contending that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) directives for Catholic hospitals impede proper medical care for pregnant women, Reuters reports (Skinner, Reuters, 9/8).

Background

The American Civil Liberties Union (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, Michigan -- 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 fetus 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. 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 prohibits providers from 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.

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

Following Bell's ruling, ACLU appealed the lawsuit to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/7/15).

Latest developments

The Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit on Thursday ruled in favor of Bell's decision. The judges held that the court lacked jurisdiction over the defendants, including USCCB and three former chairs of Catholic Health Ministries, which sponsors the hospital. In addition, the appeals court said Means could not demonstrate her allegations of negligence.

The court stated, "Means alleges -- and we do not doubt -- that she suffered physical and mental pain, emotional injuries, a riskier delivery, shock and emotional trauma ... But these allegations are not sufficient to state an injury under Michigan negligence law." The judges added, "Pain alone is not 'physical injury.'"

ACLU of Michigan expressed disappointment over the decision. Brigitte Amiri said, "[Means'] suffering and trauma [were] a direct result of hospital policies drafted by nonmedical professionals who let their religious doctrine trump patient care" (Reuters, 9/8).