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Phoenix Catholic hospital defends abortion that took place there; bishop warns of excommunication

May 17, 2010

In late 2009, an abortion took place at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix after a hospital ethics committee deemed the abortion necessary to save the life of the mother. Sister Margaret Mary McBride, the hospital’s vice president of mission integration, was a member of the committee that made the decision and has since been assigned new duties.

The hospital has defended its decision, while Bishop Thomas Olmsted warned that Catholics who formally cooperated in the abortion were automatically excommunicated.

The Diocese of Phoenix said in a May 14 statement:

The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, released the following statement today in response to the acknowledgement by officials at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center to the media that an unborn child was killed several months ago at St. Joseph's through a direct abortion:

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.

Every Catholic institution is obliged to defend human life at all its stages; from conception to natural death. This obligation is also placed upon every Catholic individual. If a Catholic formally cooperates in the procurement of an abortion, they are automatically excommunicated by that action. 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.

We always must remember that when a difficult medical situation involves a pregnant woman, there are two patients in need of treatment and care; not merely one. The unborn child's life is just as sacred as the mother's life, and neither life can be preferred over the other. A woman is rightly called 'mother' upon the moment of conception and throughout her entire pregnancy is considered to be 'with child.'

The direct killing of an unborn child is always immoral, no matter the circumstances, and it cannot be permitted in any institution that claims to be authentically Catholic.

As our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, solemnly taught in his encyclical 'The Gospel of Life,' a 'direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being' (The Gospel of Life #62).

The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Institutions (ERDs) are very clear on this issue: 'Catholic health care ministry witnesses to the sanctity of life from the moment of conception until death. The Church's defense of life encompasses the unborn and the care of women and their children during and after pregnancy.' (ERD, Part Four, Introduction) The ERDs further state that 'Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted. Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion. ... Catholic health care institutions are not to provide abortion services, even based upon the principle of material cooperation. In this context, Catholic health care institutions need to be concerned about the danger of scandal in any association with abortion providers.'" (ERD 45)

Bishop Olmsted, by virtue of his office, is the authoritative voice on faith and morals in the Diocese of Phoenix. This includes every official Catholic institution of the Diocese.

The hospital said in a statement:

At St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, our highly-skilled clinical professionals face life and death decisions every day. Those decisions are guided by our values of dignity, justice and respect, and the belief that all life is sacred.

We have always adhered to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services as we carry out our healing ministry and we continue to abide by them. As the preamble to the Directives notes, 'While providing standards and guidance, the Directives do not cover in detail all the complex issues that confront Catholic health care today.'

In those instances where the Directives do not explicitly address a clinical situation - such as when a pregnancy threatens a woman's life - an Ethics Committee is convened to help our caregivers and their patients make the most life-affirming decision.

In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother's life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy. This decision was made after consultation with the patient, her family, her physicians, and in consultation with the Ethics Committee, of which Sr. Margaret McBride is a member.


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  • Posted by: BobJ70777069 - May. 18, 2010 7:27 PM ET USA

    70 times 7 cheers for Bishop Olmstead!

  • Posted by: carlkrebs2165 - May. 17, 2010 11:20 PM ET USA

    It would appear the ethics committee needs to have an orthodox priest, appointed by the bishop, as one of the members. Maybe he could take Sr. McBride's place.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - May. 17, 2010 10:17 PM ET USA

    This really puts the bishop in a difficult position: Unless he explicitly clarifies and acknowledges that the excommunications have already occurred and does not require hearings, a trial, etc., there will be ambiguity and confusion as to who was and wasn't a "formal cooperator". It's time to name names.

  • Posted by: lauriem5377 - May. 17, 2010 7:36 PM ET USA

    May God bless this courageous Bishop! It is hard to believe the Ethics Committee in a Catholic Hospital or any Ethics Committee would make such a decision. What ever happened to the ethical principle of non-malfeasance - the duty to do no harm. What ahppened to the Commandment - thou shalt no kill? Both this mother and defenseless baby deserved the care and treatment to preserve their lives. Please, everyone, pray for mercy now on all the souls involved in this terrible tragedy!

  • Posted by: - May. 17, 2010 6:17 PM ET USA

    1. Hospital convenes "ethics committee" to justify the indefensible. 2. Hospital authorizes killing baby. 3. Bishop shines 50-megawatt truthbeam on hospital. 4. Hospital knows better than bishop that the truth is "complex". 5. The ranks of the excommunicated and morally blind sadly increase.

  • Posted by: sparch - May. 17, 2010 4:32 PM ET USA

    "Those decisions are guided by our values of dignity, justice and respect and the belief that all life is sacred." Apparently their "values" do not include a Christian but a secular perspective. Nor does it include any guidance from our Church. Anyone who believes that "all life is sacred" understands that both the lives of the mother and the child are sacred. There is no Sophie's choice to be made. We try to save both of them.

  • Posted by: Hal - May. 17, 2010 12:56 PM ET USA

    They lost the "Catholic" health system a long time ago. It's gonbe as a reflection of anything remotley "Catholic".

  • Posted by: JuneRose - May. 17, 2010 9:07 AM ET USA

    Sadly, the response from the hospital centered on key words that were not backed by appropriate action. The cited life and death, then went on to only refer to a pregnancy, never acknowledging that there were two patients. So they chose death for one, and life for another. Sad, sad, sad! How is that affirming life? Does the fact that it was only "an 11-week pregnancy" make this better?

  • Posted by: - May. 17, 2010 8:38 AM ET USA

    Unbelievable. Was this instance the first time the "Ethics Committee" confronted this type of situation, and did it ever consult Catholic teaching? Has the "Ethics Committee" ever been properly catechized? Had Sr. McBride ever read "Evangelium Vitae"?

  • Posted by: adamah - May. 17, 2010 8:19 AM ET USA

    I am glad the good bishop was quite clear. It is unfortunate that the hospital and its (un)ethics committee are unable to see how murder is wrong.