Emotional distress cannot be used to challenge Catholic health directives and providers' refusal to conduct abortions, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
The Sixth Circuit refused to revive Tamesha Means' lawsuit against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, alleging its health directives for Catholic hospitals were negligent and caused her pain and emotional stress stemming from inadequate medical care at Trinity Health's Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, Mich.
Means suffered a miscarriage 18 weeks into her pregnancy in December 2010, but she claimed hospital personnel didn't inform her that she could terminate the pregnancy rather than go through a more painful and life-threatening delivery. Instead, doctors provided her with pain medication and told her to come back for her regularly scheduled appointment the following week. Means ended up returning to the hospital the following day with worsening symptoms, but was provided no additional care.
She returned for a third time the same evening, delivering a baby that lived for only a few hours.
Means claimed she didn't understand the severity of the issue until years later, after the statute of limitations for medical malpractice claims had passed. So she sued the conference in 2013 for disseminating the directives all Catholic hospitals have to follow.
But the Sixth Circuit said that Means needed to have a present physical injury in order to sue for negligence. In addition, she couldn't prove that the USCCB's directive prevented Mercy Health from providing her with the allegedly withheld information about abortions.
“Means alleges – and we do not doubt – that she suffered physical and mental pain, emotional injuries, a riskier delivery, shock and emotional trauma from making funeral arrangements for her dead child, and other 'discomforts and pain,'” the ruling said. “But these allegations are not sufficient to state an injury under Michigan negligence law."
The unanimous three-judge panel also said it didn't have jurisdiction over the case, since none of the defendants – UCCSB or three former chairs of the Catholic Health Ministries – live within the Sixth Circuit's boundaries. Means did not establish that there was a substantial connection between UCCSB and the Michigan hospital.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Means in the suit, said it was disappointed in the ruling, but it wouldn't prevent other women from bringing similar lawsuits over the policies.
“Women have the right to know that when they go to an emergency room, their treatment will be determined based on their doctor's best medical judgment and not a hospital's religious restrictions,” said Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project.
The ACLU is involved in several other lawsuits challenging the directives and Dignity Health's refusal to provide women adequate emergency care. In April, the California Medical Association joined an ACLU suit against Dignity Health over its refusal to allow a woman to have a tubal ligation during her scheduled C-section at Mercy Medical Center in Redding, Calif.
Dignity Health was the sixth largest not-for-profit health system in the country in 2015, pulling in $12.5 billion in revenue that year.