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Can Religious Directives Cause Medical Malpractice in Catholic Hospitals?

While a great deal of attention has been directed towards conflicts between religious freedom and access to contraception, a new suit against a Catholic hospital may have ramifications for medical malpractice law in the coming years.

This week the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Michigan federal court. The ACLU is suing on behalf of Tamesha Means and pleads that Means did not receive accurate information or treatment in a Catholic-affiliated hospital in Muskegon, Michigan.

On Means’ behalf, the ACLU alleges that she sought treatment from Mercy Health Partners, the only hospital in her county, when her water broke in the eighteenth week of pregnancy. Means says she was not told her fetus could not survive or that there were risks if she continued her pregnancy, nor did the hospital admit her for observation. She returned the next morning, bleeding and in pain, but was sent home; she returned that evening with a fever, and miscarried while at the hospital. According to medical experts who have reviewed Means’s case, the fetus had “virtually no chance” of surviving, and that in such circumstances doctors would ordinarily induce labor or surgically remove the fetus to reduce the mother’s chances of infection. Dr. Douglas W. Laube, an obstetrician from the University of Wisconsin Medical School, described Means’s care as “basic neglect.”

Twenty percent of all US hospital beds are found in Catholic-affiliated hospitals, a percentage that trends suggest is likely to increase as more and more hospitals merge with Catholic health systems. Catholic-affiliated hospitals are required to conform to the Conference of Bishops guidelines published in the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services; violation risks a loss of affiliation. The Diocese of Phoenix stripped a Catholic hospital of its affiliation in 2010 after it performed an abortion to save the mother’s life. The directives prohibit pre-viability pregnancy termination, even when there is little or no chance that the fetus will survive and the life or health of the pregnant woman is at risk.

The suit has not been filed as a medical malpractice suit. Means and the ACLU have sued the Conference of Bishops rather than a doctor or health care provider; additionally, the facts of the case arose in 2010, and the Michigan statute of limitations for medical malpractice is two years. However, when the apparent refusal of a health care provider to provide treatment causes a patient additional pain, medical malpractice is implicated. The Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives restrict a hospital’s ability to provide an abortion; additionally, there is evidence of policy interference in the treatment of ectopic pregnancy or in administration of end of life care.

As the influence of Catholic health networks continues to expand, and the number of patients treated increases, there will likely be an increase in cases pitting religious restrictions on obstetric treatment against general standard of care accepted by the medical and legal professions. We will be watching closely to see how the law develops.

Thousands of legal abortions are performed in this country every year, and while many are safe, occasionally complications may arise due to the negligence of the physician. If you or a loved one has been harmed by the carelessness or mistake of a doctor during any medical procedure, you should contact us today. Our team of medical malpractice lawyers can help determine whether you have a malpractice claim, and explain all of your options. We will walk you through the process of pursuing your claim and getting the relief you deserve. Call today for your free consultation.

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