American Civil Liberties Union sues U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference

A lawsuit has been filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), alleging that the health care directives of the Conference were responsible for the failure of a Catholic hospital to properly treat a woman who was miscarrying a pregnancy at 18 weeks gestation.  The incident subject of the lawsuit occurred in December, 2010 in Muskegon, Michigan.  The ACLU alleges that Tamesha Means was sent home twice by Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon without appropriate medical intervention, and received treatment only when she returned a third time and actually went into labour.  The suit also names Catholic Health Ministries Chairman Stanley Urban, and former chairpersons Robert Ladenburger and Mary Mollison as defendants.  They are named as individuals because Catholic Health Ministries (CHM) has status under Catholic Canon Law as a “public juridic person”   [Health Progress, March/April 2005] but has never been incorporated under the laws of Michigan or the United States. The ACLU contends that CHM was responsible for the enforcement of the USCCB directives.

Neither the hospital nor the treating physicians are named in the suit. As a result, the claim is not for medical malpractice or medical negligence by the physicians or hospital, but for negligence by the USCCB.  However, the hospital and treating physicians would be civilly liable for their actions regardless of USCCB directives, and their competence and clinical judgment would surely be central issues in evaluating what took place. If they were not negligent, it is difficult to see how the USCCB or CHM could be held to be negligent.

The substance of the complaint was released to the media before the USCCB was served.  In a response to media enquiries, the president of the USCCB insisted that the lawsuit was “baseless” and “misguided.”  John Haas, President of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, stated that the ACLU was selectively reading the directives, and that the suit was a means to advance a partisan cause, not “to obtain redress (for Means).”

“If they were concerned about a redress of grievances for this woman and medical malpractice,” he said, the suit should have been filed in a Michigan court naming the hospital and its staff as defendants.  He also pointed out the at the directives would have permitted the induction of labour in the circumstances alleged in the complaint, and likened the suit against the USCCB as suing the American Medical Association because a physician failed to follow its guidelines. [NCR]

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