Nun demoted after a hospital team carried out an abortion to save a woman’s life

A CATHOLIC nun and long-time administrator at St Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix has been demoted because she had been part of a team that decided to end the pregnancy of a critically ill patient.

St Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center

The decision drew a sharp rebuke from Bishop Thomas J Olmsted, head of the Phoenix Diocese, who indicated that the nun – Sister Margaret McBride, the highest-ranking member of the Sisters of Mercy at the hospital – was “automatically excommunicated” because of the action.

Neither the hospital nor the bishop’s office would address whether the bishop had a direct role in her demotion. He does not have control of the hospital as a business but is the voice of moral authority over any Catholic institution operating in the diocese.

The actions involving the McBride followed a last-minute, life-or-death drama in late 2009. The patient had a rare and often fatal condition in which a pregnancy can cause the death of the mother.

McBride, who had been vice president of mission integration at the hospital, was on call as a member of the hospital’s ethics committee when the surgery took place, hospital officials said. She was part of a group of people, including the patient and doctors, who decided upon the course of action.

The patient was not identified, and details of her case cannot be revealed under federal privacy laws.

The Catholic Church forbids abortion in all circumstances and allows the termination of a pregnancy only as a secondary effect of other treatments, such as radiation of a cancerous uterus.

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In a statement, Suzanne Pfister, a hospital vice president, said that the facility adheres to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services but that the directives do not answer all questions.

In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother’s life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy.

Bishop Olmsted, after learning of the surgery, said:

I am gravely concerned by the fact that an abortion was performed several months ago in a Catholic hospital in this diocese. I am further concerned by the hospital’s statement that the termination of a human life was necessary to treat the mother’s underlying medical condition.

An unborn child is not a disease. While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother’s life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means.

Olmsted added that if a Catholic “formally cooperates” in an abortion, he or she is automatically excommunicated. Excommunication forbids the person from participating in church life. Remedies are available through an appeal to the Vatican or confession.

He added:

The Catholic Church will continue to defend life and proclaim the evil of abortion without compromise, and must act to correct even her own members if they fail in this duty.

James J Walter, professor of bioethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, a Catholic university, said a pregnancy may be terminated only in limited, indirect circumstances, such as uterine cancer, in which the cancer treatment takes the life of the fetus.

Catholic teaching, he said, is that a pregnancy cannot be terminated as a means to an end of saving the life of a mother who is suffering from a different condition.

Asked if the church position prefers the mother and child to die, rather than sparing the life of one of them, Walters said the hope is that both would survive.

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Hat tip: Gamblor