US Catholic Faith in Real Life

When Catholic hospitals turn away pregnant women in distress, we need to start asking some new questions

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

By now you've likely heard about the controversy surrounding Tamesha Means and the care she received--or more so, the care she didn't receive--at Mercy Health Partners, a Catholic hospital in her home state of Michigan. Back in 2010, Means was 18 weeks pregnant when her water broke and she visited Mercy Health in serious pain, but they sent her home. She returned twice but the hospital insisted it could do nothing to help her until she ultimately went into labor just before being sent home a third time.

Of course, the hospital's claim that there was nothing they could do meant that as a Catholic institution, they couldn't terminate the pregnancy even though there was little chance the fetus would survive. The story became headline news last week when the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of Means. But rather than sue the hospital for negligent care, the ACLU targeted the U.S. bishops and their Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care. The bishops have called the lawsuit "baseless," and others have painted it as an attack on the church's teaching about abortion.

I'll leave that argument to the lawyers, but the case does raise once again the question of where the line is drawn on protecting human life when two lives are at stake--those of the pregnant woman and her unborn baby. Means contends that she was never told by the hospital that the reason they couldn't help her--even when she arrived in pain, bleeding, and possibly with an infection--was because of the ethical directives, nor was she told that a non-Catholic hospital might have responded to her concerns differently.

Luckily, Means survived, even though her baby died shortly after being delivered. But as CNN reports, other women in similar situations haven't been as lucky. Last year in Ireland, a woman who was 17 weeks pregnant went to the hospital in extreme pain but, though the hospital knew the woman was having a miscarriage, they did not intervene until the fetus had died. Shortly thereafter, the mother died of an infection. Then there was a case in the Dominican Republic where a pregnant teenager with cancer was denied treatment because it would likely terminate her pregnancy. Again, both mother and child died.

The question of whether a hospital should attempt to save one life rather than risk losing two has been hotly debated in Catholic circles. The 2009 case in Phoenix that saw St. Joseph Hospital approve an abortion to save the life of a mother garnered a ton of press, especially after the local bishop stripped the hospital of its Catholic identity and publicly excommunicated the person who signed off on the procedure. It was a complicated, painful, and messy situation, but the hospital stood by its decision to act in a way that was most likely to save the one life it was reasonably certain it could save.

The law should never force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions, and it seems unlikely that the ACLU will prevail in having the ethical and religious directives thrown out. But the church needs to ask itself some important questions about what the teaching to uphold and protect the dignity of human life means in these challenging situations. In the case of Tamesha Means, would it have meant explaining her situation more clearly and telling her why she was being sent home? Would it have meant giving her the option of going to another hospital? Or would it mean acknowledging that when there is very little likelihood of saving the lives of both mother and child, that the priority should be saving at least one life rather than losing both?

Such questions will never have easy answers, but carrying out the teaching of the church often requires getting into muddy situations and trying to find clarity. For the sake of all who turn to the church for medical care, that clarity can be the difference between life and death.