Battle between Catholic hospitals and reproductive health intensifies

A new lawsuit filed against the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops highlights growing concerns that Catholic hospitals are guided by religious, not medical, concerns and are denying appropriate care to patients.

The lawsuit, filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in U.S. district court in eastern Michigan, claims the Catholic Bishop's religious directives, particularly those that ban abortion, resulted in negligent care for patients, such as Tamesha Means of Muskegon, Mich.

The ACLU claims Means, who was 18 weeks pregnant in December 2010, received negligent care at Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon--which is the only hospital within 30 minutes of her home--after her water broke. She visited the hospital three times over a period of two days.

The lawsuit claims that during those visits the hospital never informed Means that her fetus had no chance of surviving and continuing the pregnancy would pose a serious risk to her health. Instead she was sent home with medication and told to follow up with her doctor at an appointment scheduled for the following week. On her third trip to the hospital, she miscarried, delivering the fetus feet-first during a painful, prolonged breech delivery, according to the lawsuit.

"Each time I went into the hospital, the same thing happened," Means told NBC News via an ACLU spokeswoman. "They should act like it's their mother or sister or daughter they're treating. I pray to God someone stops this from happening again. My life could have been taken. I was in a very dangerous situation."

The suit comes in the wake of a rising number of mergers between Catholic hospitals and non-religious systems in the United States and concerns that the religious directives may restrict care to patients. The mergers are particularly a problem in rural areas like Muskegon because patients don't have many options for care, according to The Washington Post.

"As the number of Catholic hospitals increases, we're highlighting the way they can constrain care," Louise Melling, ACLU deputy legal director, told the Post. "The suit is significant in that it's calling attention to what is happening at these hospitals. In some instances, the directives are governing care rather than medical guidelines."

The Post and NBC News reported neither Mercy Health Partners nor the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops would comment on the case.

The American Hospital Association reports there are 630 Catholic hospitals in the United States, accounting for 15 percent of all hospital beds in the country, according to the Post. One-third of Catholic hospitals are in rural areas. The ACLU estimates nearly half of hospital beds could be "under Catholic influence or outright control," FierceHealthcare previously reported. For example, in the past three years, the state of Washington has seen a total of 10 proposed or completed affiliations between Catholic and secular institutions. These mergers could lead to restrictions in assisted suicide, abortion, birth control and fertility treatments.

To avoid conflicts leading to failed Catholic and non-Catholic partnerships, Catholic Healthcare West last year ended its board's association with the Catholic church and changed its name to Dignity Health to help the system expand nationally, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

To learn more:
- here's the lawsuit (.pdf)
- read The Washington Post article
- check out the NBC News article