Catholic Hospitals in the U.S. Are Turning Women Away for Miscarrying

What Women Really Think
Dec. 3 2013 10:44 AM

ACLU Sues Catholic Bishops for Refusing Treatment to Miscarrying Woman

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Why should a bunch of old men without any medical training determine a woman's hospital care?

Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

As anti-abortion sentiment grows more extreme, it's inevitable that it will start to interfere with the ability of women to get medical care even when they're losing wanted pregnancies. In El Salvador, the eagerness to arrest women caught illegally aborting has led to the government charging women who have miscarried wanted pregnancies with murder. In Ireland, Savita Halappanavar lost her life when doctors refused to clear out a miscarrying pregnancy, even though it was clearly turning septic. These doctors decided, under Ireland's strict abortion ban, that giving Halappanavar's fetus an opportunity to experience a few days more of a heartbeat was more important than saving Halappanavar's life.

While the United States has much more liberal abortion laws than Ireland and El Salvador, this extremism is affecting women's medical care here, too. Catholic hospitals, which constitute 12 percent of hospital in the U.S., usually require doctors to refuse to help a woman who is miscarrying until the fetal heartbeat stops on its own, which is the same rule that led to Halappanavar's death. The American Civil Liberties Union is now suing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf of Tamesha Means, who went to the only hospital in her area—Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, Mich.—for help with a clearly miscarrying pregnancy. Twice, the misleadingly named Mercy hospital sent Means home, despite her suffering. From the ACLU's press release: 

Because of its Catholic affiliation and binding directives, the hospital told Means that there was nothing it could do and did not tell Means that terminating her pregnancy was an option and the safest course for her condition. When Means returned to the hospital a third time in extreme distress and with an infection, the hospital once again prepared to send her home. While staff prepared her discharge paperwork, she began to deliver. Only then did the hospital begin tending to Means’ miscarriage.
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Despite anti-abortion activists' claims that they see both the mother and the fetus as equally deserving of life, the refusal to treat miscarrying women as long as the fetus can manage a couple of heartbeats demonstrates how untrue that is. If a pregnancy cannot be saved, refusing treatment quite clearly means prioritizing the fetus—it means choosing a couple more hours for the fetus over relieving a woman's suffering; saving her health; and, in some cases, saving her life. The directive to refuse care in these cases demonstrates how little the anti-choice movement is actually about "life," something conscious women clearly have, and we should all care about protecting. 

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.