In a federal lawsuit that goes to the core of the current abortion debate, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has been sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of a Michigan woman who claims that a local Catholic hospital’s intransigent pro-life protocols needlessly forced her to endure a dangerous and painful miscarriage.
In the complaint, Tamesha Means of Muskegon, Mich. alleges that area hospital Mercy Health Partners acted negligently when it refused to recognize her imperiled 18-week-old fetus as a miscarriage warranting surgical intervention. When Means’ water broke roughly halfway through her term, the religious hospital reportedly sent her home without any treatment. When she returned the following day with bleeding, painful contractions, and signs of infections, she was once again turned away by hospital staff. It wasn’t until her third visit, when she suddenly began to deliver the baby, that doctors finally intervened.
In a press release published Monday by the ACLU, the rights organization charges that the suffering Means endured was an immediate outcome of prohibitive directives set forth by the USCCB. “The directives prohibit a pre-viability pregnancy termination, even when there is little or no chance that the fetus will survive, and the life or health of a pregnant woman is at risk,” the nonprofit organization wrote. “They also direct health care providers not to inform patients about alternatives inconsistent with those directives even when those alternatives are the best option for the patient's health.”
Means, whose miscarriage would have been her fourth child, told reporters that she was appalled by the hospital’s failure to inform her about the health risks attending the premature rupture of her membranes as well as the delivery itself. “They never offered me any options," she said in a statement released by the ACLU. "They didn't tell me what was happening to my body. Whatever was going on with me, they discussed it amongst themselves. I was just left to wonder, what's going to happen to me?"
The current case dovetails with the recent legal challenges to Texas Senate Bill 5 — a set of restrictive abortion provisions whereby a clinic offering pregnancy terminations must have inpatient admitting privileges at a fully equipped health center within 30 miles. The law, which was the subject of a well-publicized filibuster that elevated Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tex) to internet fame, has so far forced abortion clinics in 24 counties to close shop. Some women’s rights activists argue that only a handful of clinics will survive under the new law.
With USCCB et al. v. ACLU, the abortion debate is widened to include a more diverse array of cases, as Means’ predicament shows that directives set forth by religious authorities are sometimes indiscriminately generalized across all pregnancies — be they wanted or not. Writing for Slate, Amanda Marcotte submits that by refusing to acknowledge the state of the fetus and denying Means the care she obviously needed, the hospital essentially prioritized a faceless religious principle over the actual life of a mother of three children. Such decisions, she argues, call into question the anti-abortion movement’s purported goal of protecting all life.
"The best interests of the patient must always come first and this fundamental ethic is central to the medical profession,” Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement. “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.”