ACLU sues over Catholic hospital’s response to miscarriage

A Michigan woman is going head to head with the country’s Catholic hospitals, claiming she was denied proper treatment following a miscarriage.

Tamesha Means visited Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, Michigan, when her water broke at just 18 weeks of pregnancy, according to a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a lawsuit on her behalf. She was sent home twice “even though she was in excruciating pain; there was virtually no chance that her pregnancy could survive, and continuing the pregnancy posed significant risks to her health.”

According to Means’ account, the hospital, bound by its religious affiliation, failed to offer her the option of inducing labor and terminating her pregnancy, which could have alleviated her pain.

Means returned to the hospital, the only one in her county, a third time and began to deliver while waiting to be discharged again, according to the press release. Her baby was pronounced dead two-and-a-half hours after delivery, according to an interview she gave to The Washington Post.

Nationally, a wave of mergers between Catholic and secular hospital systems has spurred concerns about how reproductive health services will be delivered at medical centers bound by religious guidelines.

Here, Portland’s Mercy Health System of Maine recently became the only Catholic hospital organization in the state to join a secular hospital group, Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems of Brewer. Portland’s Mercy, like other Catholic hospitals, operates under ethical and religious directives issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In addition to addressing care for the poor and vulnerable, the directives include prohibitions against abortion under any circumstances, contraception, vasectomies and tubal ligations, and many infertility treatments.

In her suit, Means takes aim at the bishops, arguing that their directives result in unnecessary trauma and harm to pregnant women.

(In addition to similar names, Mercy Health System of Maine and Mercy Health Partners in Michigan overlap in their ownership history. Mercy Health System of Maine was a member of Pennsylvania hospital chain Catholic Health East before merging with EMHS. The Michigan hospital’s parent company, Trinity Health, merged with Catholic Health East in May.)

About a year ago, a nonprofit group dedicated to monitoring these hospital deals voiced worries about the Mercy-EMHS agreement.

“We have seen in the past situations in which even when the Catholic hospital is in the weaker position financially, it still demands certain things from a non-Catholic acquirer. Promising never to do abortions, restricting other reproductive health services, contraception, sterilization,” Lois Uttley, director of MergerWatch, a New York City nonprofit that advocates for policies that support patients’ beliefs, told me last December.

During the negotiations, EMHS repeatedly made clear that it would respect Mercy’s Catholic identity after the merger. While Mercy, the only Catholic hospital within EMHS, abides by the directives, other EMHS hospitals are not bound by the guidelines. Reproductive services at the system’s other six acute-care hospitals won’t be affected by the merger, according to EMHS. The system also confirmed Monday that Mercy never requested during negotiations that EMHS hospitals abide by any of the directives or restrict abortion, contraceptive, or other reproductive health services.

More than half of obstetrician-gynecologists at Catholic hospitals report experiencing a conflict over religious-based policies, according to data published in 2012 by University of Chicago researchers.

Means’ lawsuit, filed Nov. 29, could have implications for Catholic hospitals in Maine and nationwide. Maine also is home to two other Catholic medical centers, St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston.



Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.