US Appeals Court fails to hold Catholic hospital responsible for denial of care

On 8 September, the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case of Tamesha Means, a Michigan woman who sued a Catholic-affiliated hospital for negligence by following religious directives in how they managed her miscarriage.When Means first went to Mercy Health, the only hospital in her county, she was 18 weeks pregnant. Her waters had broken, and she was beginning to miscarry. Doctors and staff at the hospital, which is operated by a multi-billion dollar network of Catholic-run hospitals, told Means there was no medical care they could offer her because treatment would mean the termination of her pregnancy: a violation of Catholic directives preventing any care resulting in the death of a fetus, even a non-viable one. She was sent home not once but twice, and was about to be sent home a third time, by which time she had a fever and infection, for which she was only given aspirin, when she began to deliver.This decision rests in a legal doctrine dating back more than 100 years. Both the federal district court and the court of appeals ruled in part that this doctrine prevents courts from reviewing cases like Means’. Under the doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention, civil courts should be limited in their role in deciding matters of “religious controversy”. The idea behind the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is that courts should not settle what would amount to disputes about religious doctrine, which Catholic-affiliated hospitals claim is the reason for their refusal to provide health care to patients like Means.Approximately one in six hospital beds in the USA are in a facility where health-care delivery is governed by the Catholic directives. In some states, more than 40% of all beds fall into that category, with those hospitals routinely refusing to provide comprehensive reproductive health care to patients. As Means’ case illustrates, some patients’ only choice is to seek care at a Catholic-affiliated hospital. If courts are unwilling to hold those institutions accountable for delivering to their patients shoddy and sub-standard care, where does that leave patients like Means, whose lives are being put at risk in the name of religion?Rewire, by Jessica Mason Pieklo, 9 September 2016; VISUAL