Michigan Women Fight Back Against Attacks to Their Reproductive Rights

by | Mar 25, 2016 | Reproductive Rights

As a civil rights lawyer and Michigan resident, I am incredibly saddened and disappointed by the man-made public health disasters that my government allows to persist. I am equally awed and inspired by the courageous Michigan women who are standing up and speaking out to protect their communities — women doing the job that their government fails to do.

Flint, Michigan, is now internationally recognized as a place where government incompetence is at its zenith. After officials decided to supply residents with water from the Flint River without treating it as legally required, a woman named LeeAnne Walters noticed that her kids were losing their hair and getting horrible rashes. For months, LeeAnne spoke out to every level of government about the toxic water that she and the rest of the city were drinking. Her comments fell on deaf ears. However, she did not quit. Instead, along with an extremely dedicated group of concerned residents, she protested, demanding only the most basic thing — safe drinking water for the people of Flint and their children. The government responded to these public outcries with silence, then ridicule, then assurances of water safety (despite clear evidence to the contrary). Finally, more than 18 months later, the government acknowledged the problem and provided actual help.

However, the damage caused by lead is often irreversible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warn that lead places young children at significant risk of neurological and developmental damage and causes increased rates of miscarriage and birth defects in pregnant women. An entire generation has been endangered because the government deliberately failed to follow the law. But thanks to LeeAnne and others, the people of Flint are finally getting some of the resources they need to combat the lifetime of health problems that lie ahead.

Around the same time that LeeAnne sought safe water in Flint, I met a pregnant woman in the next town named Jessica Mann. Jessica had a brain tumor and spent the last few weeks of her pregnancy begging her hospital to perform a routine procedure that she needed to protect her life. Her OB-GYN and maternal-fetal medicine specialist had determined that the tumor would make another pregnancy life-threatening. Therefore, both physicians recommended that Jessica have her tubes tied immediately following her upcoming delivery to ensure she did not become pregnant again. However, her hospital, Genesys Regional Medical Center, forbade it. Genesys is a Catholic facility that follows the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (the Directives) — a set of hospital policies written by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that prohibits, among other things, all forms of direct sterilization. Although Genesys purports to have a medical exception to its sterilization ban, it refused to grant one in Jessica’s case.

With the help of the ACLU of Michigan, Jessica fought back and filed an emergency complaint with Michigan’s hospital licensing board. Five months after submitting this complaint, Jessica has not received any response, despite rules requiring the board to respond to all complaints within 30 days. The government failed to protect Jessica, and remains silent despite its regulatory obligations to ensure patient safety. Jessica, who ultimately was forced to abandon her OB-GYN to obtain the procedure she needed elsewhere, continues to speak out so other women know about Genesys’ policies that put patient health and life at risk.

Likewise, another brave Michigan woman, my client Tamesha Means, has taken on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in federal court for creating the Directives and making them mandatory for Catholic hospitals, despite the threat to patient safety. These policies, which also endanger patients by preventing all abortions, caused Tamesha’s hospital — the only one in her county — to repeatedly deny her appropriate emergency care for her miscarriage. The hospital’s refusal caused Tamesha to experience immense suffering and serious infection.

Jessica and Tamesha’s willingness to stand up and fight against these policies is critical to protecting women’s health. Their hospitals’ parent companies, Ascension and Trinity Health, respectively, are the two largest Catholic health care systems in the country. These two companies have recently formed a partnership that plans to provide health care services to 75 percent of Michigan residents. All services will be governed by the Directives, placing thousands of women at daily risk of incurring the same fate as Jessica and Tamesha.

So while Michigan is properly scrutinized and shamed for its epic government failures, I take great pride in the women of this state who continue to stand up and fight to make the rest of us safer — women who persevere even when their pleas to the government go unanswered. Because, as LeeAnne discovered, when you persevere long enough, the world ultimately listens.