As the battle over whether employers can opt to decline to cover birth control on religious grounds heads to the Supreme Court, another lawsuit is further challenging what role religion can play in patient health care, or denial of care.
In a lawsuit filed with the American Civil Liberties Union, Tamesha Means of Muskegon, Mich., alleges that Mercy Health Partners, a Catholic-affiliated hospital—and the only hospital in her county—refused to induce labor despite the fact that her water broke several months early. She was sent home with medication three times, until eventually she miscarried at 18 weeks and was forced to endure a dangerous breech delivery of her stillborn fetus.
The Means case will add further fuel to an increasingly fiery debate over where the line between religious freedom and personal liberty blurs. Many of the arguments raised by proponents of religious liberty in the debate over birth-control coverage and reproductive rights have troubling echoes of the arguments once raised by states-rights proponents in the debate over civil rights.
Just think for a moment. There was once a time when a private hospital would have said that being forced to treat a black patient was a violation of its rights, until the federal government stepped in.
And even today, many who consider themselves libertarians tend to stand by such convictions. I once engaged in a lively on-air debate with a self-described “libertarian” of whom I asked the following: “Let’s say there is a plane crash and I happen to be near death due to my injuries. Do you believe a private hospital, even if it is the only one in that town, has the right to deny me service?” To which he replied, “Sorry, but yes.”
Even current GOP Sen. Rand Paul found himself having to dig his foot out of his mouth after saying that while he “abhors racism,” when it comes to establishments that wouldn’t serve African Americans and were forced to integrate, “I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant, but at the same time, I do believe in private ownership.”
While today you would be hard-pressed to find mainstream businesses that would blatantly deny service to African Americans, the Means case raises troubling questions about the type of treatment that a hospital would decline to give if a patient’s health were at stake. According to the Daily Mail, “The hospital’s vice president of mission services, Joseph O’Meara, told NBC the directives authorized by the Catholic bishops prohibited the hospital from inducing labor.”
Based on her allegations, this is why Means experienced such traumatic treatment. Despite her life possibly being in danger, hospital policy, due to religious beliefs, prevented her from having her labor induced. But who is to say where the line is drawn on such policies? What if a gay man battling AIDS was near death? Could a hospital say, “We believe being gay is a sin, therefore we won’t help prevent such a patient from dying?” Or what if the patient were an unmarried woman battling AIDS who had contracted it from a partner? While the argument over these policies has largely been focused on reproductive rights and women’s health, I think we need a much broader discussion about when and where religious freedom infringes on the freedom and liberty of all of us.
Hopefully the Means case will force that question to be settled once and for all by the courts.