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Childbirth Directives & Religious Organizations May Face Off in Court

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit against the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to a recent article in The New York Times. The suit, which was brought on behalf of a Michigan woman, alleges that the woman received inadequate medical attention from a Michigan Catholic hospital when she sought care 18 weeks into her pregnancy. In suing the bishops rather than the hospital, the ACLU is targeting the bishops’ medical directives and the impact they have on pregnant female patients in Catholic hospitals.

The ACLU’s lawsuit could have important implications for birth injury lawyers and victims of medical negligence during childbirth. If successful, it could pave the way for more actions of its kind.

The Facts
The plaintiff states that, after her water broke, she rushed to the county’s only hospital. Medical experts retained by the plaintiff claim that her fetus had nearly no chance of surviving, and that the plaintiff had a high risk of infection if she continued her pregnancy. But the doctors did not give her this information, and instead of inducing labor or surgically removing the fetus, they sent the plaintiff home. When she returned the next morning with further complications, the doctors again declined to admit her and sent her home.

Finally, she returned that evening in severe pain, with fever and bleeding. She had a miscarriage at the hospital. The plaintiff alleges that the hospital was negligent in not terminating her pregnancy when her life was in danger. A medical expert asserted that the hospital’s actions amounted to “basic neglect” and could have resulted in the deaths of both the mother and the fetus. The ACLU claims that the Catholic bishops’ directives on abortion lead to this sort of alleged medical negligence toward pregnant women.

Analysis
This lawsuit is unique in that it is aimed at the religious organization that runs the hospital rather than the hospital itself. In addition to the question of medical negligence, it brings up interesting issues regarding the First Amendment and religious freedom. The ACLU alleges that the abortion policies of Catholic hospitals have led to several incidents similar to that of the Michigan woman in recent years.

According to the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, the bishops’ directives are “more nuanced” than the suit alleges, and allow for necessary treatment of pregnant women even when that treatment could result in the loss of the fetus. He stressed the Catholic hospitals’ responsibility to properly interpret the directives and to provide accurate information to patients. The issue is whether the directives conflict with the relevant standard of care, and if so, how to resolve that conflict.

The ACLU’s press release on the lawsuit can be found here.

And see here for the bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

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$13 Million Verdict in Birth Injury Case — Failure to Perform C-Section