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, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Sven2547

    her pregnancy ended on the waiting room floor.

    I’ve been following this story, and this is the first I heard that she miscarried in the waiting room. Is this confirmed?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    I don’t have the ACLU complaint in front of me right now, but I believe that’s accurate. I’ll double-check it tonight.

  • L.Long

    I don’t care where she miscarried. The doctors should have their licenses taken away!!! They are doctors!!! And are suppose to ACT in the best interests of the patient not for the special interests of religious fanatics who publicly announced that they hate women. She is suing them!!?? Hell bring them up on criminal charges!!! Get someone like me on the jury and she wins!!

  • Sven2547

    The complaint says:

    As she waited to be sent home for the third time, the feet of the fetus breached her cervix and she began to deliver.

    The location of her “waiting”, and the location where the rest of the delivery happened, is ambiguous. In any event, what they did to her was monstrous.

  • Pofarmer

    This sort of hits home for me. I live in a pretty rural area. 20K people in the entire county. Our local hospital just got taken over by SMS healthcare out of St. Louis. It was never said beforehand, and I certainly never read it anywhere, that SMS was a Catholic Hospital chain. We went yesterday to work on my wifes retirement package, and the thing that hit me the most is the crucifixes now everywhere on the walls. This was an independent community hospital, and now, well, we’ll see. One of the things that bothered me in the new insurance package, is that they don’t cover “Contraceptive services in outside clinics.” They don’t say what all that covers, but it could be a wide range of coverages they deny. I don’t know what their history is here, but, I’m apprehensive.

  • Jim Baerg

    2 birds with one stone.
    Confiscate the medical assets of the Catholic church to be held in trust to pay the victims of both the medical malpractice & the victims of pedophile priests.

  • MNb

    You know, this is a reason why I’m not as thrilled by strict state/religion separation American style as some American atheists would like me to be. This kind of (non-)medication would have given the hospital serious trouble if it had happened in The Netherlands.

  • GCT

    I’m failing to see why this is a problem of strict church/state separation.

  • http://flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    MNb seems to have bought into the right-wing notion that “church/state separation” means the government isn’t allowed to regulate any business that objects to the regulation on religious grounds, regardless of how secular its services are. In fact, this is the opposite of church/state separation. These hospitals are likely getting favorable treatment because of the religion of their owners.

  • Fallulah

    This makes me sick. Is there no end to the Catholic Church’s apathy (and contribution) to the plight of women?

  • smrnda

    This demonstrates two problems – the first is that religious agencies have no business running hospitals. That’s obviously clear and I hope this lawsuit costs them so dearly that they just drop out of hospital business for good.

    Second, it shows that the market does not necessarily deliver what consumers want. I don’t think anybody really *wants* to go to a hospital that, owing to some bronze age beliefs, won’t practice proper medicine. But, organizations with lots of assets are determined to eradicate consumer choice by buying other hospitals, so people who would never want to go to a Catholic hospital won’t have a choice.

  • Carmen

    I read somewhere that she was signing discharge papers when the miscarriage happened. sorry I can’t remember where I read that.

  • HematitePersuasion

    A point I never see brought up is that local hospitals, doctors and pharmacies have an effective, government-enforced monopoly on medicine, and this monopoly exists by law and regulation at both the state and federal level.

    Given that, I don’t see how a hospital, doctor, or pharmacist can claim both the advantages of the government-created monopoly AND demand religious exemption at the same time.

  • Pofarmer

    When they ask to be excluded from the ACA, or other insurance or industry requirements, special treatment is EXACTLY what they are asking for.

  • MNb

    As a Non-American I don’t really know how these issues play out in the law system of the USA. So teach me.

    “These hospitals are likely getting favorable treatment because of the religion of their owners.”
    Based on what do you argue this?

  • MNb

    Who determines these requirements? Do they prescribe that this woman should have gotten appropriate treatment? Is this hospital punishable in crime court? Which other means are there to correct this hospital? How is this correction forced upon the hospital? Are there a Council of Supervision, Inspectors of Health, of course independent? What authority do they have?
    Look, The Netherlands have their share of problems of this kind too. Like I said doctors and certainly hospitals can expect serious repercussions. That may even lead to governmental supervision.
    As an ignorant Dutchman I wonder how you Americans deal with this stuff except writing on internet (which is valuable enough in itself).

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Yeah, you’re right. I gave too specific a reading to the complaint; it said that she miscarried while she was waiting to be sent home, not that she was in a waiting room.

    Even though I don’t have any specific information on this point, though, I wonder where else she could have been. It’s clear that the hospital had no intention of admitting her, so she almost certainly wasn’t in a private room. Possibly in an exam room?

  • Sven2547

    It’s clear that the hospital had no intention of admitting her, so she almost certainly wasn’t in a private room. Possibly in an exam room?

    Maybe. The story is horrific enough regardless of the particular room.

  • Crimson

    This is the plight of humans.

  • Crimson

    Sure, because why go after the institution responsible for the policies when you could ruin the lives of the few individuals caught in the middle.

  • L.Long

    This is because 85% of the population are dumbassed maroons (xtians) and they elect the congress which is nearly 100% in their pocket. These maroons hate women enjoying sex or having contraceptives or when needed abortions.
    So they vote special privilege to the churches and the churches buy the hospitals with their huge tax exempt incomes and then declare the hospitals ‘religious areas’ so they can get away with either killing women or at least giving them incredible pain and suffering.
    The Theocratic States of America is growing and some day they will harm the wrong woman and things will get ugly.

  • MNb

    OK, but 70% of the Dutch are theists as well.

  • Pofarmer

    There are certain regulations for safety and facilities that all hospitals must meet. There are also certain qualities of care that if a hospital goes under there will be some issues. Now, as to types of care offered? I don’t know anything that says a hospital HAS to offer any particular procedure. I think what this will take is a lawsuit, class action would be best, and I think aiming it straight at the Bishops is probably the best bet.

  • OldAtheist

    There are plenty of pro-choice Catholics and plenty of pro-life atheists. So to say “he’s changed none of the doctrines that were the biggest reason for atheists to object to Catholicism in the first place” is utter nonsense. I’m pro-choice, but neither atheists nor Catholics are monolithic when it comes to abortion.

    I do believe it’s wrong for doctors to not perform necessary medical procedures, regardless of the beliefs of the organization who employs them. But turning this into an “us/them” issue is really unlike you, Adam. If I wanted cheap binary clickbait I’d go over to the small minded guys at Friendly Atheist. You’re way better than that.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    There are plenty of pro-choice Catholics…

    Are any of them in charge of setting policies for Catholic hospitals?

    If I wanted cheap binary clickbait I’d go over to the small minded guys at Friendly Atheist.

    Okay. Bye.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    It’s very likely to give them trouble here as well, as the ACLU lawsuit shows. I’m not aware of any legal theory that allows a hospital, whether church-owned or otherwise, to refuse to provide medically appropriate care to someone in need of it. For one thing, what this hospital did seems like a straightforward violation of EMTALA.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    I’m not actually all that sympathetic to the doctors here. It seems to me that professional ethics require a physician to treat someone in obvious need of care.

    If a doctor allows their professional judgment to be overridden by the handed-down decrees of theologians without quitting in protest, then I don’t think that person is well-suited to be a doctor. There’s a reason we don’t usually allow the “just following orders” defense.

  • Azkyroth


  • ElRay

    Sad thing is, it isn’t just theist hospitals. It’s also theist M.D.’s lying to their patients at public hospitals. We have personal experience with this.

  • ElRay

    It’s not just the Hospital. It’s the MD’s choice too. They have the final decision.

  • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

    The lawsuit itself gives a clue why the doctors and hospital aren’t included as defendants: under Michigan law the statute of limitations for a malpractice claim against a doctor or medical facility has lapsed, unless the plaintiff proves (with the burden of proof entirely on them) that they neither discovered nor should have discovered the malpractice within 18 months. Notice that the complaint is at pains to point out that neither USCCB nor CHM are medical providers under Michigan law.

    So it looks to me like suing just USCCB and CHM is both more likely to succeed and potentially much more effective.

    That doesn’t mean that the doctors and the hospital aren’t in the wrong, it may simply mean that under the specific set of circumstances there may not be an effective way to hold them accountable.

  • GCT

    There are plenty of pro-choice Catholics and plenty of pro-life atheists. So to say “he’s changed none of the doctrines that were the biggest reason for atheists to object to Catholicism in the first place” is utter nonsense.

    That’s a non sequitur. That there are pro-choice catholics and anti-choice atheists has nothing to do with whether Francis has changed any of the doctrines. He hasn’t.

  • Crimson

    Never mind, yeah it’s just women. I keep forgetting dudes are indifferent to the suffering or loss of loved ones. Excuse me for suggesting a more inclusive perspective.

  • Crimson

    I don’t consider “just following orders” a valid defense either. A challenging moral dilemma, sure, but an excuse? no.
    However you yourself have written of the church’s merger and takeover of hospitals, do you honestly believe that (I assume most) of the staff working there should have quit their jobs in protest? And go where?
    You mentioned how the woman had no other choice in hospital to go to, does that not apply to the people working there as well? I’m not saying they are completely innocent, just that in this situation pursuing their punishment to the full extent of the law seems unreasonable and would result in less overall good than focusing on what caused this situation.

  • L.Long

    I was talking about he institution! As well as the Doc.
    The Doc is NOT caught in the middle any more then anyone else with tough decisions. Besides if the entire case was PROPERLY documented..lots of pretty pictures, etc, then when the religious bigots tried to fire the Doc HE could have taken them to court and hopefully had someone like me on the jury cuz the verdict would not take very long. So NO sympathy for the cowardly Docs.

  • Alex Harman

    That word “ethicists” deserves scare quotes; they may call themselves that, but their so-called “ethics” aren’t worth a bucket of pigshit. Moralizing misogynistic morons would be more accurate.

  • smrnda

    I think this is a worthwhile point, particularly given that the Catholic church is buying up existing hospitals. As far as work environments go, it isn’t quite as easy for hospital workers to go on strike since, well, it might end up resulting in some deaths of patients which isn’t at all what they want in sending a message to management.

    At the same time, if *every single doctor* refused to listen to the church, they can’t fire everyone.

  • smrnda

    I know. Given that the Catholic church is not a democracy, the opinions of the members don’t count for church policy, so the hierarchy is entirely to blame.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    However you yourself have written of the church’s merger and takeover of hospitals, do you honestly believe that (I assume most) of the staff working there should have quit their jobs in protest? And go where?

    Yes, they should have quit their jobs in protest, or at the very least staged some kind of strike or other labor action. Professional ethics demands nothing less, not when the new owners are ordering them to not treat dying women. If a restaurant was bought out by a corporation and the new owner ordered the workers to put poison in the food, what would you suggest they do?

  • DavidMHart

    There’s nothing wrong with inclusiveness generally, but the policies being written about here in this specific thread are ones that directly endanger only those people with a uterus*. It is not the Catholic Church’s misanthropy, but specifically its misogyny that is the problem here, and we should recognise that. The male friends and family of women who suffer because of the Church’s war on women are collateral damage, not the target.

    *Yes, there are people who identify as male but who have functioning female reproductive system, if that’s what you were talking about. But the Church, as I understand it, basically refuses to recognise trans* people as anything other than ‘confused’ members of their assigned gender anyway, so it would still be misogyny on the Church’s part if something like this happened to a trans man.

  • smrnda

    I think it’s worth pointing out that if the Catholic church lets women die, there will be men (like men in their families?) who will likely be upset over it. Great for them to say “well, we let your wife die because we were following religious rules.”

  • monsieurduncan

    It’s doubtful that the doctors in question actually disagree with the administration policies or they simply wouldn’t have chosen to have admitting privileges there. I’ve practiced alongside colleagues who wouldn’t offer patients certain vaccinations because they were grown on fetal cell culture.

    But even if you were to assume that the obstetrician on duty *did* disagree with administration policy, it would have been almost impossible to act alone. They would have had to convince the anesthesiologist and/or CRNA, the OR nurses, techs, and who-knows how many other people who probably don’t “get it.”