WASHINGTON — The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Dec. 6 called a lawsuit filed against the USCCB over its directives for Catholic health care "baseless" and "misguided."
The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan filed the suit in U.S. District Court Nov. 29.
The ACLU and the plaintiff, Tamesha Means, claim she received negligent care at a Michigan Catholic hospital when her pregnancy was in crisis at 18 weeks, leading her to suffer emotional and painful trauma that resulted in a premature birth and the death of the baby shortly thereafter.
The ACLU suit blames the bishops' "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care" for the inadequate care it says Means received.
"It is important to note at the outset that the death of any unborn child is tragic, and we feel deeply for any mother who suffers such pain and loss," said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., USCCB president. He noted that the USCCB had not yet been served with the complaint but decided to respond because of media requests for comment about the suit.
"We cannot speak to the facts of the specific situation described in the complaint, which can be addressed only by those directly involved," he said.
He called it "baseless" for the ACLU to claim the directives encourage or require "substandard treatment of pregnant women" because they do "not approve the direct killing of their unborn children."
The USCCB directives are now in their fifth edition, approved by the U.S. bishops in 2009, and are available at www.usccb.org. The 43-page document includes 72 directives.
They "urge respectful and compassionate care for both mothers and their children, both during and after pregnancy," Archbishop Kurtz said. They "restate the universal and consistent teaching of the Catholic Church on defending the life of the unborn child," he added, a teaching he noted "also mirrors the Hippocratic oath that gave rise to the very idea of medicine as a profession, a calling with its own life-affirming moral code."
"A robust Catholic presence in health care helps build a society where medical providers show a fierce devotion to the life and health of each patient, including those most marginalized and in need, he said. "It witnesses against a utilitarian calculus about the relative value of different human lives. And it provides a haven for pregnant women and their unborn children regardless of their financial resources."
Mercy Health spokeswoman Joan Kessler told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 3 email that hospital officials were "still reviewing the situation and at this time we have no comment."
Asked for comment on the case by CNS, the ACLU of Michigan provided a statement Dec. 5, quoting Kary Moss, executive director: "The best interests of the patient must always come first and this fundamental ethic is central to the medical profession. In this case, a young woman in a crisis situation was put at risk because religious directives were allowed to interfere with her medical care. Patients should not be forced to suffer because of a hospital's religious affiliation."
All Catholics hospitals in the United States are required to adhere to the directives. They guide Catholic health care facilities in addressing a wide range of ethical questions, such as abortion, euthanasia, care for the poor, medical research, treatment of rape victims and other issues.
ACLU filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan/Southern Division. Besides the USCCB it names three former or current chairs of Catholic health care system that includes Mercy Health Muskegon, as it is now called, where Means sought care.
According to the suit, the plaintiff was 18 weeks pregnant in December 2010 when her water broke and she had a friend rush her to the Catholic hospital, the only health facility close to her home. It says as a mother of three, Means, then 27, knew something was seriously wrong with her pregnancy.
Means says because the hospital had to adhere to the USCCB directives, and it was prevented from telling her "the fetus she was carrying had virtually no chance of surviving" and informing her the safest option was to "induce labor and terminate the pregnancy."
The lawsuit says that an ultrasound showed that Means was suffering from "oligohydramnios," a condition characterized by a deficiency of amniotic fluid surrounding the unborn child. The lawsuit said that in Means' case, it was caused by "the premature rupture of membranes."
The hospital, then called Mercy Health Partners, or MHP, "did not tell Ms. Means that it would not terminate her pregnancy, even if necessary for her health, because it was prohibited from doing so by the directives," the lawsuit says.
The suit says the hospital sent Means home and told her to make an appointment with her own doctor. She returned to Mercy Health the next day, was sent home again, only to return a third time, according to the suit. As "she waited to be sent home for the third time ... she began to deliver," the suit says. "The baby died shortly after birth."
"Ms. Means brings this negligence action against the defendants for their roles in promulgating the directives," the lawsuit says. "As a direct result of these religious directives, Ms. Means suffered severe unnecessary and foreseeable physical emotional pain and suffering."
In his statement, Archbishop Kurtz said the USCCB will continue to defend the principles of Catholic teaching, including as there are outlined in the ethical directives, "in season and out, and we will defend ourselves against this misguided lawsuit."
Others named as defendants are three former chairs of what the suit calls "Catholic Health Ministries, the religious sponsor of MHP."
Mercy Health Muskegon in west Michigan is part of a regional system of Catholic health care facilities. In May of this year, its parent company, Trinity Health, merged with Pennsylvania-based Catholic Health East. The consolidation created one of the nation's largest Catholic health systems, serving patients and communities in 21 states.
The new organization has its headquarters in Livonia, Mich., and maintains a divisional office in Newtown Square, Pa.