You know you are not going to have a great Christmas when the season opens with a lawsuit from the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union, but the season turned even less merry yesterday when the N.Y. Times editorial board weighed in solidly against the U.S. bishops' conference (“When Bishops Direct Medical Care”). The ACLU is suing the bishops on behalf of a Michigan woman who miscarried while in the care of a Catholic institution in Muskegon in 2010. The suit blames the alleged negligent treatment of their client on the U.S. bishops' "Ethical and Religious Directives."
Accepting without question the veracity of the ACLU claims and the full measure of its legal argument against the apparently disquieting existence of the ERDs, the Times editoral board intoned:
How the suit will play out is unclear, but it showcases an important issue. Catholic hospitals account for about 15 percent of the nation’s hospital beds and, in many communities, are the only hospital facilities available. Allowing religious doctrine to prevail over the need for competent emergency care and a woman’s right to complete and accurate information about her condition and treatment choices violates medical ethics and existing law.
The problem Ms. Means encountered is not unique or limited to her particular medical needs. In 2010, the Diocese of Phoenix punished a nun and stripped a hospital of its affiliation after doctors there performed an abortion to save a mother’s life.
In a statement last Friday, the president of the bishops’ group, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, said that the religious directives did not encourage or require substandard medical treatment. He also portrayed the case as an attack on religious freedom — the same unpersuasive argument the bishops are making against the new federal health care law’s requirement that all plans include contraception coverage.
The board finishes with a reference to the quaint secular understanding of religious expression as an experience that is meant to be confined within four walls, perhaps a properly Gothic cathedral, for instance, on your knees: "The bishops are free to worship as they choose and advocate for their beliefs. But those beliefs should not shield the bishops from legal accountability when church-affiliated hospitals following their rules cause patients harm."
Today the Catholic Health Association responded:
The New York Times editorial published on Dec. 8 was misleading and in error. It is especially regrettable that such a respected publication would rush to judgment without validating the facts.
Catholic hospitals in the United States have a stellar history of caring for mothers and infants. Hundreds of thousands of patients have received extraordinary care — both in the joy of welcoming an infant or in the pain of losing one.
In many communities in our country, the Catholic hospital’s maternity service is the designated center for high-risk pregnancies. It is inaccurate and irresponsible to assert that these wonderful community services are unsafe for mothers in an obstetrical emergency, simply because a Catholic hospital adheres to the Ethical and Religious Directives. This can be frightening to families and is grossly disrespectful to the thousands of physicians, midwives and nurses who are so devoted to their patients and to the care they deliver.
The inaccuracy of this assertion is easily proven. We are fortunate in this country to have several independent organizations with oversight responsibility for all hospitals. Nationally, for most hospitals it is the Joint Commission (JCAHO) and, in each state, there is a licensing agency. Both organizations have robust standards and inspections. They would not accredit or license a hospital that is unsafe for mothers or infants under any circumstance.
Add to that the commitment of health professionals caring for these mothers. They accept many personal disruptions in their schedules to be there for mothers and infants 24/7. They would not tolerate working in a clinical setting that is detrimental to their patients.
Premature rupture of membranes is one of the most stressful obstetrical events. In this situation, the infant is almost always much desired; parents want and need to know that every option for saving their baby was exhausted. This is not a simple clinical situation that you "take care of" and then move on. Anyone who has ever cared for these parents knows that this will always be the child they lost.
There is nothing in the Ethical and Religious Directives that prevents the provision of quality clinical care for mothers and infants in obstetrical emergencies. Their experience in hundreds of Catholic hospitals over centuries is outstanding testimony to that.
I'll join the N.Y. Times editorialists in wonderment regarding how a suit like this will "play out." The Catholic-bashing supporters of abortion rights, based on the seething commentary at some pro-choice web sites, will not be satisfied until every Catholic medical center that offers emergency or OB/GYN care in the country is shuttered and every person who has moral qualms about abortion is driven out of the medical profession. The ACLU claims its suit is based on a desire to protect women from poor emergency treatment for crisis pregnancies when they have no choice but to rush to a Catholic-affiliated health provider. One can only wonder what kind of emergency care folks in such poorly served communities can expect when there is no health provider for them to rush to at all.