In November, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The lawsuit argues that the religious constraints placed on medical professionals in Catholic hospitals result in negligent care for their patients. The ACLU’s argument is based on the fact that Catholic hospitals, by and large, bar the discussion and performance of abortions, even when not doing so could pose serious health risks for the mother.
There is no doubt that the ACLU has solid footing in its case. It is the obligation of medical professionals to make patients aware of all viable treatment options and then allow the patient to make an informed decision. It is impossible to make an informed decision if the options are not even available.
The focal point of the ACLU’s lawsuit is the treatment of Tamesha Means, whose water broke just 18 weeks into her pregnancy. She got a ride to the only hospital within a reasonable distance, Mercy Health Partners. Based on her report of events, she was given medication and told to wait for the pain to stop. She was neither offered the option to induce labor or to terminate the pregnancy nor was she even told that the fetus was unlikely to survive.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Means said, “The pain was unbearable, I told them, ‘I need you guys to help me.’ They told me there was nothing they could do.”
In fact, there was plenty they could have done for Means but nothing they could do within the religious constraints placed on them by Mercy Health. Means’ pain could have been alleviated by procedures that are very common for women in her circumstances.
Unfortunately, the religious directives of the Catholic Church put the medical professionals at Mercy Health in a bind.
According to The Washington Post, Catholic health care providers are given a list of guidelines meant to “provide authoritative guidance on certain moral issues that face Catholic health care today.”
Medical sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco Lori Freedman said of the Means case, “They frequently bring up this exact scenario, where a woman is suffering premature rupture of membranes in the second trimester. In a non-Catholic hospital you would talk about various options: If you want to miscarry naturally, induce labor or do you want us to do a surgical removal.”
On her third visit to the hospital, Means delivered her baby, stillborn.
Means said, “I still had no answers as to why they did nothing to help me, why they didn’t go ahead and induce labor if they knew my baby wasn’t going to make it. They left me in pain for those days.”
The doctors at Mercy Health allowed Means to suffer in pain for two days, a clear violation of the Hippocratic Oath: to care for patients honestly and to the best of your ability.
While many staunch Catholics argue that if you do not like the way Catholic hospitals are run, you should go to a different hospital, the reality is that the number of Catholic hospitals is increasing. Additionally, many of these Catholic hospitals are located in rural areas of the South and are the only hospital within a reasonable distance for patients.
Means is just one example of the way Catholic dogma is affecting how health care is administered in hospitals across the nation. Without the religious directives of the Catholic Church, patients would be better informed of their treatment options and would be able to make decisions about their own health.