NYTimes: Catholics acting Catholic, equals ACLU suit

In a startling development, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (headquarters in photo) is being sued for — you’ll never believe this! — enforcing Roman Catholic teaching in Roman Catholic institutions.

Friends, The New York Times is ON IT, to borrow from a certain Twitter meme. Here are the startling details:

The American Civil Liberties Union announced on Monday that it had filed a lawsuit against the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, arguing that their anti-abortion directives to Catholic hospitals hamper proper care of pregnant women in medical distress, leading to medical negligence.

The suit was filed in federal court in Michigan on Friday on behalf of a woman who says she did not receive accurate information or care at a Catholic hospital there, exposing her to dangerous infections after her water broke at 18 weeks of pregnancy.

In an unusual step, she is not suing the hospital, Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, but rather the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Its ethical and religious directives, the suit alleges, require Catholic hospitals to avoid abortion or referrals, “even when doing so places a woman’s health or life at risk.”

The suit opens a new front in the clash over religious rights and medical care. The Catholic Church has fought against requiring all health plans to include coverage of contraception and is likely to call the new lawsuit an attack on its core religious principles.

The USCCB, of course, having “refused to comment,” that last supposition by the Times is, well, just that. This means there really isn’t any supporting evidence cited in the story for that “likely” thing, unless you count the negative comment of an ACLU attorney as evidence:

“This isn’t about religious freedom, it’s about medical care,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the civil liberties union, in a telephone news conference on Monday.

Non-Catholics and those who support the limited use of abortion to save a mother’s life might find some compelling arguments in the plaintiff’s story:

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.

At the news conference Monday, Dr. Douglas W. Laube, an obstetrician at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, described the care Ms. Means received as “basic neglect.” He added, “It could have turned into a disaster, with both baby and mother dying.”

Of course, one might wonder if the ACLU really wants a physician talking about an 18-week-old fetus as a “baby” to be their go-to medical expert here, but that’s a discussion for another time, perhaps. Means’ story is tragic, and could have ended with even greater sadness. That would tug at anyone’s heart-strings.

After this, the Times, I feel, muddles the story by hinting at — but not really explaining — the nuances of Catholic thought here. There’s a lot of supposing, from what I saw, but not much in the way of examples or citations of documents:

The A.C.L.U. said it had filed suit against the bishops because there had been several cases in recent years in which Catholic hospital policies on abortion had interfered with medical care.

John M. Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia and an adviser to the bishops, said he could not speak about the current suit because he was unfamiliar with it. But he said that the bishops’ directives were more nuanced than critics allege, allowing for actions to treat a woman at risk even if that treatment might result in the loss of the fetus.

He said some hospitals might have misinterpreted the bishops’ rules and added that doctors were required to tell patients of potential risks and alternatives, though they may not provide direct abortion referrals.

Can anyone dig up the bishop’s various comments on the subject?

Might there be something like, you know, a web page where some of these might be found? And if there is, mightn’t something be quoted to give readers some greater understanding, other than the paraphrased opinion of one bioethicist?

Even if the ACLU had spoon-fed the allegedly injurious bishop’s directives to reporters, by quoting them we’d at least get a sense of where the Catholic church is going with their thinking. Right now, this report isn’t so much a report as it is a sort-of advocacy journalism summary judgment: Catholic hospitals are bad for your health if you have a very difficult pregnancy situation. Without some supporting evidence, however, that judgment seems difficult to sustain.

About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Most Catholic hospitals were originally set up to service poor neglected immigrants in large cities or in country sides that government couldn’t be bothered with. Nuns set them up as charitable enterprises. In fact, as reported in this case, the only hospital in the county is a Catholic hospital.
    How many hospitals to care for the poor or the unserviced in the boondocks has the ACLU set up??? So now Catholic hospitals following Catholic moral principles are under attack by the ACLU through the same governments that couldn’t be bothered with caring for the poor. Is this hypocrisy or irony???.
    It would be interesting to see some stories in the media of the unsung work many Catholic hospitals have done instead of only seeing them mentioned when someone –or the state- wants to coerce them into becoming virtual arms of the state through court action.

  • FW Ken

    The reporter also might have asked a lawyer about the liability that accrues to the bishops for the actions of a hospital they don’t own. Now, the local diocese might own the hospital in question, but that would be unusual, if I understand it correctly, and they aren’t suing the local diocese.

    One might also note the irony of the ACLU seeking too criminalize thoughts.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Hey, could there also be, you know, an actual website (http://www.usccb.org/about/doctrine/ethical-and-religious-directives/index.cfm) that actually has the document known as the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services in PDF form? Wow! Brilliant idea! Who woulda thunk it?

  • Rev_Aggie_98

    Another angle that was missed is that medical malpractice could be involved. Just not the kind the ACLU wants the reporter to believe. Early breakage is survivable for both mother and child even if it is rather risky. More research would be needed to see if she was offered the level of care it would take for both to make it to a fetal age with a higher survival rate.

    • Kevin Spencer

      The story, by neglecting to research, missed the angle of “double effect,” where critical care to save a mother has the expected and inevitable side effect of termination of the pregnancy, as in an ectopic one. Going down that road, the story could have a more useful result and put the medical decisions in a brighter light.

  • wmrharris

    If anything, the NYT seemed to be going for the lowest hanging fruit: repeat the press release, add some quotes on the end. To fault them, however for not attending to specifics of the bishops’ directives is to miss the actual conflict, viz. what happens when those directives intersect with broader public concerns.

    As usual, Sarah Khliff at the Washington Post does a solid job explaining the health policy aspects of the suit; JoNel Aleccia at NBC adds some of the corporate details. Both stories offer richer conversations.

    The Times is certainly right, however, in one thing: this is an issue that represents something of a new front: Mercy Hospital had swallowed the secular hospital in town, and then in turn was bought out by Trinity Health (one of the largest non-profit chains). The question which the ACLU suit at least alludes to is the degree of responsibility that a monopoly has to the community as a whole. E.g. Is the hospital a public good or private? We have not heard the end of it.


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