CHICAGO (AFP) - A woman twice sent home from a Catholic hospital during a painful miscarriage has sued the church's hierarchy for imposing standards of care which bar termination of any pregnancy, her lawyers said on Monday.
The lawsuit argues that those rules - based on the belief that abortion is murder - stopped her doctors from providing medically appropriate care: terminating the failed pregnancy before it threatened the mother's health.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops - which authored the ethical and religious directives and is the party being sued - declined to comment on the case.
Ms Tamesha Means was just 18 weeks pregnant when her water broke in December 2010. She rushed to the only hospital in her rural Michigan county - Mercy Health Partners.
"They never offered me any options," she said in a statement.
"They didn't tell me what was happening to my body. Whatever was going on with me, they discussed it amongst themselves. I was just left to wonder, what's going to happen to me?"
Despite the fact that there was little chance her fetus could survive, the lawsuit alleges that hospital workers sent her home with no warning of the risk that she could develop a serious infection if the pregnancy were to continue.
She was instead given pain medication and told to come back in a week for her regularly scheduled doctor's visit. This "misled" the mother of three to believe "the foetus would become viable and she would deliver a healthy baby," the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said.
Ms Means rushed back to the hospital the next morning when she began bleeding and experiencing painful contractions, but was sent home as soon as her feverish temperature went down.
She returned again that night, "in pain, in distress and with signs of an infection" and was once again told there was nothing to be done.
But as the discharge papers were being processed, the feet of the fetus breached her cervix. The baby died less than three hours after it was delivered.
Her case came to light after a public health surveillance project discovered the hospital had not induced labour in "at least five instances where the pregnant woman miscarried before the fetus was viable and was diagnosed with preterm premature rupture of membrane".
The lawsuit alleges that the hospital administration reviewed the case this year and determined that the decision not to induce labour to terminate the pregnancy was "proper" because the religious and ethical directives prohibit inducing labour prior to fetal viability.
Those standards of care also prohibit termination of ectopic pregnancies - when the egg implants outside the uterus - despite the fact that it can cause death or infertility by rupturing a fallopian tube.
"A pregnant woman who goes to the hospital seeking medical care has the right to expect that the hospital's first priority will be to provide her appropriate care," said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU.
"Medical decisions should not be hamstrung by religious directives."