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ACLU Vows to Keep Fighting Church’s Healthcare Rights


John Burger - published on 07/09/15

Michigan judge stays the attack on religious liberty for now

The American Civil Liberties Union is appealing a federal court decision that upheld the Catholic Church’s right to set health care policy based on its moral teaching.

U.S. District Judge Robert Holmes Bell, sitting in Grand Rapids, Mich., dismissed a lawsuit challenging part of the US Bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services because, he said, it is improper for courts to interfere in religious doctrinal decisions.

The case stems from 2010, when a Michigan woman miscarried after being sent home twice from a Catholic hospital in Muskegon. The lawsuit claimed Catholic doctrine caused her to receive improper care.

MLive reported the story:

Tamesha Means, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Michigan, in November 2013 sued the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. … The ACLU-drafted lawsuit contended Means "suffered severe, unnecessary, and foreseeable physical and emotional pain and suffering" because of policy directives set by the bishops and enforced at Mercy and other Catholic hospitals.

The lawsuit sought damages and a declaration that the conference’s actions were negligent, "not only to provide a remedy for the trauma she suffered, but also to prevent other women in her situation from suffering similar harm in the future," in the words of the legal complaint.

The policies at issue are called Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. They prohibit pre-viability pregnancy termination and informing patients that deliberate termination is a medical option. …

According to the lawsuit, Means was 18 weeks pregnant…when her water broke. She made three visits to a Mercy emergency room within a couple of days with pain and other symptoms and was not informed that pregnancy termination was an option. On the third visit, with an infection-induced fever and while about to be discharged again, she delivered a baby who died within three hours. …

The ACLU claims her care was negligent because the policy prevents staff from telling her "that terminating her pregnancy was an option and the safest course for her condition."

According to the ACLU, Means was in "excruciating pain," continuing her pregnancy posed "significant risks to her health," and she suffered "extreme distress" and an infection that can cause infertility.

Bell said in his opinion June 30 that Means could sue doctors or hospitals for medical malpractice, but for a court to consider the woman’s negligence claim in regard to the Ethical and Religious Directives would "impermissibly intrude upon ecclesiastical matters."

"It is not up to the Court to mandate the larger structural and policy reform to Catholic hospitals that Plaintiff seeks; that issue is left to the Church and its tribunals," Bell wrote.

The ACLU immediately filed a notice of appeal to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a statement released June 30 by the ACLU, Means was quoted as saying, "With all I’ve gone through, this decision is a devastating blow to deal with. But I will continue to stand up and speak for every woman who’s suffered like I have at the hands of religiously affiliated hospitals. And I will keep working toward the day when the people responsible for our trauma will be held accountable."

After the lawsuit was filed, the bishops’ conference issued a statement saying the Ethical and Religious Directives prohibit abortion but allow operations, treatments and medications for a pregnant woman to treat a "proportionately serious pathological condition," even if doing so causes the unintentional death of the child.

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