When We Assume that Institutions Have a Conscience

It is absolutely unconscionable that something like this could happen in the United States today.

In December 2010, when her water broke only eighteen weeks into her pregnancy, Tamesha Means rushed to Mercy Health Partners, her closest hospital and the only provider within a half-hour drive of her home in Muskegon, Michigan. Staff at Mercy Health did not inform Means of the risks that continuing the pregnancy posed to her health, nor did they notify her of any termination options for a non-viable fetus. Instead, they sent her home. Suffering through agonizing pains throughout the night, Means began bleeding. When she returned to Mercy Health the next day, the staff sent her home once again. By this time Means was running a fever and plainly suffering from a severe infection; she once again made the trip to the hospital. As Mercy prepared the paperwork to dismiss her yet again, Tamesha Means began to deliver. Only then did Mercy Health admit her for treatment.

That is the story Kathleen Frydl tells as part of her article in the current issue of the Washington Monthly titled Taking Liberties with Religious Liberty.

Would it surprise you to learn that the ACLU actually lost its law suit filed on behalf of Tamesha Means against Mercy Health Partners for this kind of (non) treatment? The court ruled that “Means was not a patient with rights in need of treatment from a hospital; she was a non-consenting party compelled to observe the teachings of a theological institution” because Mercy Health is a Catholic-affiliated hospital.

Thus begins Frydl’s exploration of the legislative and judicial history of how the “conscience clause” came to be applied, not only to individuals and churches, but to other religious institutions. And as we’ve seen recently in the Hobby Lobby case, that has now been extended to private for-profit companies.

The history is pretty exclusively centered on Catholic traditionalist working on behalf of Catholic hospitals to exempt them from treatment involving women’s reproductive health concerns. The issue of whose rights are being upheld and whose are dismissed comes into focus with this information Frydl provides from the 1960’s when this all began.

But Catholic-affiliated hospitals comprised roughly one-third of the total network of private hospitals in the country. By the Church’s own reckoning, in 285 cities or incorporated areas in the U.S. a Catholic hospital was the only general hospital facility available to the public.

As the religious liberty conscience clause increasingly becomes the tool used by the right to thwart the rights of LGBT and women’s reproductive rights, it is important for us all to be aware of the history of how it came to be applied – not just to individuals and churches – but to private and nonprofit institutions.

P.S. As an addition teaser, reading this article will inform you of the central role played by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) – who is most famous for chairing the Church Committee – in applying the conscious clause to private hospitals.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .