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How Catholic hospitals can put women having miscarriages in danger

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Sepsis. Agonizing pain. Emotional trauma. Unnecessary surgery. This is what can happen to pregnant women who are having a miscarriage and get sent to a Catholic hospital that refuses to induce labor because of strict anti-abortion directives from the church.

A major investigative piece by Molly Redden published in the Guardian on Thursday details how, over a period of 17 months, one Catholic hospital seriously risked the health of five pregnant women who were miscarrying.

The women's stories are horrifying, and come from a leaked report by a former health official who was tasked with investigating infant mortality in Michigan. The official, Faith Groesbeck, wrote the report because she was alarmed at the practices of Mercy Health Partners hospital in Muskegon, Michigan.

"Healthcare watchdogs have documented isolated instances in which Catholic hospitals denied women birth control or sterilization procedures," Redden writes. "But this report details some of the most systematic collisions of religion and medicine ever to surface in public."

The hospital endangered the lives of women having miscarriages

One woman's doctors forced her to wait until she developed sepsis before they would induce labor, according to the report. They watched her temperature steadily climb for eight hours, doing nothing, until she was finally in grave enough danger that terminating the pregnancy would actually save her life.

Another woman was forced to wait for more than 18 hours for her miscarriage to proceed naturally, instead of inducing labor immediately when she arrived at the hospital. She retained her placenta, which was infected, and had to have surgery to remove it.

Another woman, Tamesha Means, was sent home twice after she came to the hospital seeking treatment for severe cramping from her miscarriage. The second time she came back, the pain was even worse; the third time, she arrived with an infection. Means is suing the hospital for this 2010 incident, but the case is still making its way through the courts.

All five women had symptoms that, according to best medical practices, should have been treated by inducing labor, according to the report. None of the women were carrying viable fetuses. Some of them easily could have died.

But their proper care was delayed or denied because doctors feared violating directives from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Some of the women weren't even told that their medical options were being restricted under those directives, which forbid procedures that will cause fetal death unless they are used to treat "a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman."

This is a bigger problem than just one hospital

Experts in Catholic health care told Redden that the directives should never interfere with providing the best emergency care or put the mother at risk. Yet there is apparently confusion about how to interpret the directives, and that confusion can cost women dearly in emergency situations.

This is a problem when, depending on where you live, you may not be able to avoid going to a Catholic hospital — and due to frequent mergers, you may not even know that your local hospital is Catholic.

One in nine hospitals in the US are now Catholic-run, Redden notes, and there are 30 communities whose only hospital is a Catholic one.

Women might have to travel long distances to find a secular hospital — which could be the difference between life and death, or could simply put patients in an unnecessarily difficult position. Take Rachel Miller, who had to fight with Mercy Medical Center in California to have a doctor-recommended tubal ligation performed after her C-section. Otherwise, she would have had to travel 160 miles to get it done.

It's also not just about the conscience of Catholic doctors who don't want to perform certain medical procedures. Plenty of non-Catholic OB-GYNs work at Catholic hospitals. More than half of OB-GYNs working at Catholic hospitals say they have experienced conflict with religious care policies, and many are concerned or shocked by the treatment implications.

It's also not clear what, if anything, can be done to protect women in these situations. Tamesha Means's lawsuit against Mercy Health Partners was dismissed in a lower court because the judge said ruling in her favor would require taking a position on whether Catholic religious doctrine is correct — something the courts aren't allowed to do. An appeal of that case is now pending, and could have a significant impact on the intersection between religious freedom and women's health care.