by Julie Asher
WASHINGTON (CNS) – The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Dec. 6 called a lawsuit filed against the USCCB over its directives for Catholic health care “baseless” and “misguided.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Michigan filed the suit in U.S. District Court Nov. 29.
The ACLU and the plaintiff, Tamesha Means, claim she received negligent care at a Michigan Catholic hospital when her pregnancy was in crisis at 18 weeks, leading her to suffer emotional and painful trauma that resulted in a premature birth, the suit says, and the death of the baby shortly thereafter.
The ACLU suit blames the bishops’ “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care” for the inadequate care it says Means received.
“It is important to note at the outset that the death of any unborn child is tragic, and we feel deeply for any mother who suffers such pain and loss,” said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., USCCB president. He noted that the USCCB had not yet been served with the complaint but decided to respond because of media requests for comment about the suit.
“We cannot speak to the facts of the specific situation described in the complaint, which can be addressed only by those directly involved,” he said.
He called it “baseless” for the ACLU to claim the directives encourage or require “substandard treatment of pregnant women” because they do “not approve the direct killing of their unborn children.”
The USCCB directives are now in their fifth edition, approved by the U.S. bishops in 2009, and are available at www.usccb.org. The 43-page document includes 72 directives.
Respectful, Compassionate Care
They “urge respectful and compassionate care for both mothers and their children, both during and after pregnancy,” Archbishop Kurtz said. They “restate the universal and consistent teaching of the Catholic Church on defending the life of the unborn child,” he added, a teaching he noted “also mirrors the Hippocratic oath that gave rise to the very idea of medicine as a profession, a calling with its own life-affirming moral code.”
“A robust Catholic presence in health care helps build a society where medical providers show a fierce devotion to the life and health of each patient, including those most marginalized and in need, he said. “It witnesses against a utilitarian calculus about the relative value of different human lives. And it provides a haven for pregnant women and their unborn children regardless of their financial resources.”
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan/Southern Division, names as a defendant Mercy Health Muskegon, as it is now called. When Means sought care, it was known as Mercy Health Partners, or MHP.
Others named as defendants are three former chairs of what the suit calls “Catholic Health Ministries, the religious sponsor of MHP.”
Mercy Health spokeswoman Joan Kessler told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 3 email that hospital officials were “still reviewing the situation and at this time we have no comment.”
Asked for comment on the case by Catholic News Service, the ACLU of Michigan provided a statement Dec. 5, quoting Kary Moss, executive director: “The best interests of the patient must always come first and this fundamental ethic is central to the medical profession. In this case, a young woman in a crisis situation was put at risk because religious directives were allowed to interfere with her medical care. Patients should not be forced to suffer because of a hospital’s religious affiliation.”
All Catholic hospitals in the U.S. are required to adhere to the directives. They guide Catholic health care facilities in addressing a wide range of ethical questions, such as abortion, euthanasia, care for the poor, medical research, treatment of rape victims and other issues.
According to the suit, the plaintiff was 18 weeks pregnant in December, 2010 when her water broke, and she had a friend rush her to the Catholic hospital, the only health facility close to her home. It says as a mother of three, Means, then 27, knew something was seriously wrong with her pregnancy.
Means says because the hospital had to adhere to the USCCB directives, it was prevented from telling her “the fetus she was carrying had virtually no chance of surviving” and informing her the safest option was to “terminate the pregnancy.”