New York Times: Catholic Hospitals’ Abortion Prohibition ‘Violates Medical Ethics and Existing Law’

Jerry Coyne put it this way: “New York Times officially opposes stupid rules of Catholic hospitals.”

He’s referencing a recent editorial entitled “When Bishops Direct Medical Care,” in which the editorial board takes on the case of Tamesha Means, on whose behalf the ACLU is filing suit against the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the party they hold “ultimately responsible for the unnecessary trauma and harm” she suffered as a patient in a Michigan hospital.

Means was 18 weeks pregnant when her water broke; she proceeded to Mercy Health Partners, the only hospital in her county, which is required to abide by the USCCB’s Ethical and Religious Directives. Because this document forbids abortion in all cases, Means was not informed that termination was an option. In fact, it was the safest option for her; there was almost no chance the fetus would survive, and the situation could have led to infection and death for the mother. In fact, Means was discharged from the hospital twice in excruciating pain, and was being discharged a third time, despite being feverish with infection, when her delivery began. The fetus died anyway; luckily, Tamesha Means survived.

In a non-Catholic hospital, the standard of care requires doctors to at least notify patients that termination of a non-viable pregnancy represents their best chance at survival in this situation. The Ethical and Religious Directives, however, prohibit doctors from terminating or even informing patients about the availability and/or advisability of such alternatives so they might seek assistance elsewhere. That was an unlikely solution in any case for Means, since Mercy Health was the only hospital in her area. But she never got the chance, and the ACLU’s research shows that she is far from the only patient to suffer a similar dilemma.

Enter the New York Times, who responded to the case with interest, perhaps because it is the first to bypass a lawsuit against the hospital and instead target the men Coyne calls “the big guys with the hats who give the orders.” They succinctly cut to the heart of the issue, writing:

Catholic hospitals account for about 15 percent of the nation’s hospital beds and, in many communities, are the only hospital facilities available. Allowing religious doctrine to prevail over the need for competent emergency care and a woman’s right to complete and accurate information about her condition and treatment choices violates medical ethics and existing law.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the USCCB, released a statement in which he attempts to defend Catholic hospitals’ reproductive health care on grounds of religious freedom, a line of argument dismissed as “unpersuasive” in the Times piece. Kurtz insists that all claims of substandard care inspired by the Ethical and Religious Directives are “baseless,” invoking the Hippocratic Oath to help explain how a non-viable fetus at eighteen weeks’ gestation is as much a patient as Means herself, not medically or philosophically different:

The Church’s rejection of abortion also mirrors the Hippocratic Oath that gave rise to the very idea of medicine as a profession […] The Church holds that all human life, both before and after birth, has inherent dignity, and that health care providers have the corresponding duty to respect the dignity of all their patients. This lawsuit argues that it is legally “negligent” for the Catholic bishops to proclaim this core teaching of our faith. Thus, the suit urges the government to punish that proclamation with civil liability, a clear violation of the First Amendment.

Interestingly, while Kurtz takes care to note that “the death of any unborn child is tragic,” he doesn’t actually mention the possibility that a woman might die in childbirth or as a result of pregnancy complications like the infection that endangered Tamesha Means, or that the death of such a woman might also be a tragedy.

Once again, the Times editorial board swiftly dismissed the Church-approved “religious freedom” argument:

The bishops are free to worship as they choose and advocate for their beliefs. But those beliefs should not shield the bishops from legal accountability when church-affiliated hospitals following their rules cause patients harm.

In what kind of moral universe should the bishops’ freedom to “proclaim” their faith outweigh a medical patient’s right to access accurate information about her own body and make decisions about her care? The document in question certainly involves religious directives, but this level of control over other people’s health care is about as unethical as it gets.

About Sara Lin Wilde

Sara Lin Wilde is a recovering Catholic (and cat-holic, for that matter - all typographical errors are the responsibility of her feline friends). She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where she is working on writing a novel that she really, really hopes can actually get published.