Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
[UPDATE: The New York Times posted an editorial today that echoes the ACLU's claims, and asserts that the bishops actually "direct" medical care at Catholic hospitals. The editorial suggests that the rise of hospital mergers that unite secular and Catholic institutions has made it more difficult for women to obtain competent care. No data are supplied to buttress this assertion, or the allegation that Catholic hospitals are unsafe for women. Read here.]
Earlier this week, a slew of headlines marked an ACLU lawsuit, charging that the U.S. bishops’ “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,” which guide moral decision making at Catholic hospitals, were responsible for negligent medical treatment of a pregnant woman. On Dec. 2, New York Times reported
The suit was filed in federal court in Michigan on Friday on behalf of a woman who says she did not receive accurate information or care at a Catholic hospital there, exposing her to dangerous infections after her water broke at 18 weeks of pregnancy.
In an unusual step, she is not suing the hospital, Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, but rather the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Itsethical and religious directives, the suit alleges, require Catholic hospitals to avoid abortion or referrals, “even when doing so places a woman’s health or life at risk.”
The suit opens a new front in the clash over religious rights and medical care. The Catholic Church has fought against requiring all health plans to include coverage of contraceptionand is likely to call the new lawsuit an attack on its core religious principles.
Wondering why you haven’t seen the U.S. bishops’ response to these allegations? According to a Dec. 6 statement released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the conference still hasn’t received formal notification of the lawsuit, even as media headlines suggest that the bishops' ethical directives put women’s health at risk.
On Dec. 6, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the USCCB’s newly elected president, signaled that he would wait no longer to respond to the ACLU's allegations. Said Archbishop Kurtz
It is important to note at the outset that the death of any unborn child is tragic, and we feel deeply for any mother who suffers such pain and loss. We cannot speak to the facts of the specific situation described in the complaint, which can be addressed only by those directly involved. The suit instead claims that our document titled “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” (ERDs) encourages or requires substandard treatment of pregnant women because it does not approve the direct killing of their unborn children.
This claim is baseless. The ERDs urge respectful and compassionate care for both mothers and their children, both during and after pregnancy. Regarding abortion, the ERDs restate the universal and consistent teaching of the Catholic Church on defending the life of the unborn child—a defense that, as Pope Francis recently reminded us, “is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 213). This same commitment to the life of each human individual has motivated Catholics to establish the nation’s largest network of nonprofit health care ministries. These ministries provide high-quality care to women and children, including those who lack health coverage and financial resources. The Church’s rejection of abortion also mirrors the Hippocratic Oath that gave rise to the very idea of medicine as a profession, a calling with its own life-affirming moral code.
The Church holds that all human life, both before and after birth, has inherent dignity, and that health care providers have the corresponding duty to respect the dignity of all their patients. This lawsuit argues that it is legally “negligent” for the Catholic bishops to proclaim this core teaching of our faith. Thus, the suit urges the government to punish that proclamation with civil liability, a clear violation of the First Amendment.
A robust Catholic presence in health care helps build a society where medical providers show a fierce devotion to the life and health of each patient, including those most marginalized and in need. It witnesses against a utilitarian calculus about the relative value of different human lives. And it provides a haven for pregnant women and their unborn children regardless of their financial resources. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will continue to defend these principles in season and out, and we will defend ourselves against this misguided lawsuit.
Earlier this week, a Dec.4 National Public Radio hosted a roundtable discussion that addressed the ACLU’s allegations. During the discussion, critics of the ethical directives piled on, suggesting that Catholic hospitals were outliers in the healthcare field, providing substandard care because they didn’t offer abortion and contraception services. One pediatrian who called in said Catholic hospitals were behind the times on end of life issues related to organ donation.
That said, these same experts acknowledged that Catholic hospitals appeared to have weathered the dramatic changes transforming U.S. health care better than many of their secular counterparts. None of the Church’s critics explained how that was so. Check out the NPR discussion here.
John Haas, the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which advises the U.S. bishops on a variety of moral questions, was among the group of experts on the NPR show. His statements appeared to contradict the ACLU’s charge that the ERDs resulted in negligent care, because physicians in Catholic hospitals could not fully inform pregnant female patients when abortion was a medically appropriate option, or could not provide medical treatment that might harm the unborn child.
Afterward, I spoke with Haas, and he described the ACLU’s allegations as “a fundamental misunderstanding — if not a misrepresentation — of the Ethical and Religious Directives.”
He noted that several directives in the ERDs address medical problems related to the lawsuit. For exmple, Directive 27 deals with “informed consent” and requires physicians to provide “all reasonable information about the essential nature of the proposed treatment . . . its risks, side-effects, consequences and cost . . . including no treatment at all.”
Directive 47, he said, is specially relevant in this case:
Directive 47 provides for medical intervention to address a serious and present pathological condition in the woman that cannot be postponed.“can be addressed even if [medical treatment] results in the foreseen but unintended death of the unborn child.”
During the NPR roundtable, Haas asked the ACLU lawyer if the group’s lawsuit cited Directive 47, and the lawyer admitted they had not. So keep in mind that both sides of this story are only begining to be told, whatever you may read in your local paper. Here's Haas' final word
Obviously the ACLU is not interested in addressing the alleged injustice done to this woman, which is a question of medical malpractice. If they were, they would have filed this case in Michigan as malpractice. Instead they brought a suit against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to bring the case into the federal courts and to gain national attention for their agenda.