In 2012, the world learned of the case of Savita Halappanavar, a pregnant woman in Ireland who died because a Catholic hospital refused to allow her to terminate the pregnancy of her 17 week fetus once she began miscarrying. Savita’s death sparked a roaring debate in the country over their abortion law, which is so strict that a patient literally could die while waiting for doctors to determine whether her life is in jeopardy enough to allow a procedure.
Here in America, even with legal abortion, some are still facing the same life or death situations, all because they have the misfortune to have a Catholic hospital as their nearest caregiver. It is because of this that the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
The ACLU is representing Tamesha Means, a Michigan woman who in 2010 entered the only hospital nearby, having just had her water break at 18 weeks pregnant. According to the Detroit Free Press, Means was sent back home, despite the fact that having a broken water sac would leave her at high risk for infection. She was not offered any other care.
At 18 weeks, a fetus is still at minimum over a month away from viability, and there is absolutely nothing that can be done to continue the pregnancy for that much longer. To avoid any risk to her health, a traditional hospital would be likely to offer a surgical abortion to end the pregnancy before she could be put at risk of infection or induce the pregnancy so she could deliver the fetus (albeit too early for it to survive). But because this was a Catholic hospital, both options were not only refused to her, they weren’t even mentioned to Means as a way of safeguarding her health, because they would be seen as intervening to end a pregnancy early. Instead, Means was sent home, in pain, to wait to miscarry on her own. When she returned to the hospital to seek out treatment again, the process was repeated.
It was only on Means’ third visit to the hospital, this time with an infection and in the midst of finally delivering the baby, that the hospital allowed her to stay and treated her.
The hospital’s actions, according to the ACLU, is a direct result of the USCCB’s directives, which forbid any abortion or delivery of an infant pre-viability, even if the pregnant person’s life is in danger. Because of that rule, which is handed down from the USCCB itself, the legal team states that the USCCB is responsible for Means’ situation, as well as any person who may find themselves denied health care options and best practices because of a religious mandate.
“The best interests of the patient must always come first and this fundamental ethic is central to the medical profession,” Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, told the Detroit Free Press. “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.”
The takeover of the health care system by religious hospitals that may not provide full spectrum care is a serious one in the country, as mergers continue to consolidate more health care facilities under fewer boards. As for-profit and public hospitals enter into partnerships with religious ones, it is often the Catholic directives that are followed as a condition of the merger, leaving patients with limited access to abortions, emergency contraception, tubal ligation and end of life decisions. These religious hospitals also act as barriers when it comes to states that are mandating that clinics that provide abortions get admitting privileges, even if the abortions are performed somewhere else. Each hospital that merges with a religious hospital becomes one more place where the directives of the USCCB, rather than the opinions and diagnoses of the medical practitioners, hold final sway over what treatments can be offered.
According to the Washington Post, one in six Americans will be treated in a Catholic hospital. If you end up that one, will you get the best medical care your doctors have to offer? Or will you only receive what the Catholic Bishops allow?
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