A new ACLU suit will challenge the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops over its abortion-restricting directives governing patient care at the nation's Catholic hospitals. The suit argues that the USCCB's directives resulted in negligence in the case of Tamesha Means, whose water broke just 18 weeks into her 2010 pregnancy.
There are about 630 Catholic hospitals in the U.S., and those numbers are increasing. According to The Washington Post, a third of those Catholic hospitals are in rural areas, and one-in-six Americans seeking care have done so at a Roman Catholic institution. In Tamesha Means's case, the only hospital in her Michigan county was a Catholic one, Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon county. So that's where she went for care when her water broke prematurely.
The lawsuit alleges that "the safest treatment option [for Means] was to induce labor and terminate the pregnancy," noting that the fetus had almost no chance of surviving. But that's not what happened at Mercy, according to the suit. Means visited the facility several times, while in "excruciating pain," as her pregnancy continued. During that time, Means alleges, she was not told that abortion was an option. She eventually gave birth, and the child died three hours later. The ACLU suit argues that the process caused "severe, unnecessary, and foreseeable physical and emotional pain and suffering" as a direct result of the USCCB guidelines that effectively ban the abortion procedure.
CNN flags the two USCCB directives in question in the suit: the first, Directive 27, reads:
"Free and informed consent requires that the person or the person's surrogate receive all reasonable information about the essential nature of the proposed treatment and its benefits; its risks, side-effects, consequences, and cost; and any reasonable and morally legitimate alternatives, including no treatment at all."
The second directive, Directive 45, clarifies the "morally legitimate" distinction. "Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted," it reads. The ACLU, in a press release announcing the suit, pointed to research demonstrating that Means's case is not unique.
But this particular legal approach in response to pregnancy complications and Catholic hospital care seems to be unprecedented. In order for the case to work, the Associated Press writes, the ACLU would need to successfully argue that those guidelines have direct control either in Means's particular case, or over the hospitals more broadly. That could be tough, as there's already some established variation in how those directives are applied by different Catholic bishops. As the AP noted, the USCCB has not yet commented on the suit, because the organization has not yet been officially notified of the legal action against it.