When Bishops Tie the Doctor’s Hands

Although the media has been thrilled by some symbolic statements about poverty by Pope Francis, the inconvenient fact remains that he’s changed none of the doctrines that were the biggest reason for atheists to object to Catholicism in the first place. Last week in Michigan, we saw another example of that:

Tamesha Means, the plaintiff in the lawsuit, said that when she was 18 weeks pregnant her water broke and she rushed to Mercy Health, the only hospital in her county.

Her fetus had virtually no chance of surviving, according to medical experts who reviewed the case, and in these circumstances doctors usually induce labor or surgically remove the fetus to reduce the mother’s chances of infection.

But the doctors at Mercy Health, Ms. Means said, did not tell her that the fetus could not survive or that continuing her pregnancy was risky and did not admit her for observation.

She returned the next morning, bleeding and in pain, and was sent home again. That night she went a third time, feverish and writhing with pain; she miscarried at the hospital and the fetus died soon after.

Let’s be completely clear on this: She showed up at a Catholic hospital already having a miscarriage, and they sent her home without doing anything besides giving her some pain medication. She returned the next day, bleeding, in pain and feverish from an incipient and potentially deadly infection, and again they discharged her without any help, without telling her what her condition was or what she could do about it – without even a word of advice. In desperation, she went to the hospital a third time, and they were about to kick her out again when, mercifully, her pregnancy ended on the waiting room floor.

Note, please, that this is the exact same policy that killed Savita Halappanavar in Ireland, that nearly killed Beatriz in El Salvador, that we’ve heard about from doctors all throughout the U.S. As long as there’s a fetal heartbeat, the heartless Catholic ethicists who run these hospitals insist that nothing be done to help a pregnant woman in distress, even if the fetus is beyond saving and the woman is dying before the doctors’ eyes. The church has changed nothing and learned nothing from Savita’s senseless, tragic, and utterly preventable death or from the suffering of the many other women who only escaped the same fate by luck.

As I’ve written before, this is an increasingly serious problem because Catholic hospitals are merging with and taking over secular ones, making them the only choice for care in many parts of the country (as was the case in Tamisha Means’ home county). And in those hospitals, the decrees of the bishops are tying the doctors’ hands; the church’s religious opinions are overruling doctors’ judgment as to what care is medically appropriate, or whether any care is offered at all.

In what other case do we allow religious dogma to dictate to medical science like this? Would we accept a Jehovah’s Witness-run hospital that refused to perform blood transfusions, even on people who show up at the emergency room dying from trauma? Would we accept a Muslim-run hospital that thought it immodest for female doctors and nurses to roll up their sleeves so they could wash their hands? How about a Jain hospital whose overseers believed that all life was sacred, down to the smallest living thing, and therefore refused to give antibiotics to people with infections?

I was extremely glad to hear that the ACLU has filed a lawsuit on Means’ behalf – though in an unusual move, they’ve sued the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, rather than the hospital. (The lawsuit also names the three most recent chairpersons of Catholic Health Ministries, the group responsible for enforcing the bishops’ directives on the hospital.) I don’t know the legal merits of this strategy, but morally it’s placing the blame exactly where it belongs – on the bishops and their imperial decrees that command women to die. I’ll be following the development of this lawsuit very closely.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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