In what is believed to be the first lawsuit of its kind, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and a Catholic hospital in Michigan for negligence in treating a woman with dangerous pregnancy complications.
The suit is on behalf of Tamesha Means, a mother of three who was 18 weeks pregnant when her water broke. At Mercy Health Partners (MHP), the Catholic hospital where she sought care (the only hospital within miles), no one told her her fetus had almost no chance of survival under the circumstances, or that she was at risk for serious infection if labor was not induced to terminate the pregnancy. Instead, she was sent home and told to come back a week later.
Means’ case is similar to that of Savita Halapannavar, the Indian woman who died last year of infection in an Irish hospital after she was denied a termination during a miscarriage at 17 weeks. An official report found a “failure in the provision of the most basic elements of patient care.” Irish law was changed to allow abortions in cases of life endangerment.
Means contracted two serious infections during her ordeal, but survived. According to the complaint, her condition worsened as repeat visits to the Catholic hospital failed to result in adequate treatment. “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 baby died shortly after birth. MHP then told Ms. Means she needed to make funeral arrangements.”
While the suit, filed in federal district court in Michigan, is unique, the circumstances are not, both in the hospital and beyond. The suit cites a public health educator who knew of at least five instances in which Mercy Health Partners did not induce labor in similarly dangerous situations. And a recent study by medical sociologist Lori Freedman published in the American Journal of Bioethics Primary Research did in-depth interviews with doctors at Catholic hospitals around the country and found that “when applied to cases in which patients were already losing a desired pregnancy and/or the patient’s health was at risk, some physicians found the institutional restrictions on care to be unacceptable.”