Legalism Over Life: Nun Supports Life-Saving Abortion And Gets Excommunicated


Sister Margaret McBride has been demoted from her position at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, AZ after participating in the approval of an abortion for a critically ill patient in 2009. McBride was part of the hospital ethics committee that approved an abortion for a patient with pulmonary hypertension, which can be made fatal by pregnancy. Hospital officials say the procedure was necessary to save the patient’s life.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, the leader of the Phoenix archdiocese, said McBride was “automatically excommunicated” for acting to save a woman’s life. What role Olmsted played in McBride’s demotion is unknown.

Olmsted condemned the hospital’s decision in a statement that blatantly defies logic:

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.

The abortion was necessary to save the patient’s life. And of course a fetus couldn’t survive if the woman died at 11 weeks – a fact that wouldn’t change my feelings on saving a woman’s life anyway, but it does show Olmsted’s interest really isn’t in saving life.

Even if we consider the 11-week fetus a person, this was a situation of two dead or one, and the legalistic adherence to the principle of double effect the Church demands would have insisted, unconscionably I think, that they choose two deaths over one.  The doctrine of double effect holds that one may never directly perform an intrinsically evil action, such as killing an innocent, for the sake of the greater consequences.  Consequentialist thinking that allows for evils (such as deaths of innocents) is only permissible where such evils are foreseeable but undesired byproducts of intrinsically good actions and where any foreseen and permitted evil results are significantly worse than all other possible outcomes.)  So, even if in this case we judge an 11 week fetus to be an “innocent human being” with an inviolable right to life, we cannot make the obvious judgment that it will die in either case and opt to kill it directly in order to save its mother’s life.  That’s what “pro-life” means to rigid legalists.

That’s why the Bishop talks about the abortion being unnecessary to treat the “mother’s underlying conditions”—if in the act of treating a specific condition of the mother, the fetus were to be foreseeably but indirectly destroyed, that would be acceptable.  But the fetus cannot be considered the “ailment” itself.  Thus the Bishop says:

“I am gravely concerned by the fact that an abortion was performed several months ago in a Catholic hospital in this diocese,” Olmsted said. “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.”

And the same obstinately impractical casuistry is at work in James J. Walters’s justification of killing a fetus as a foreseeable but undesired effect of treating a fetus’s cancer:

James J. Walter, professor of bioethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, a Catholic university, said that is a tough argument to make. He 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.

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.

Just do nothing “intrinsically evil” and “hope that both would survive”.  This is the Roman Catholic Church not even relying on some commitment to ancient texts but willful shirking all responsibility for outcomes of the actions which its all too blunt philosophically derived rules demand.  Hemant Mehta provides the common sense in reply to Walters’s insistence we settle for hope that both survive:

That would be ideal. But it wasn’t the situation in this case. That option never existed.

The hospital staff made the right call.

The Catholic Bishop didn’t.

It’s just one of many reasons Catholics shouldn’t be running hospitals. They care more about their doctrines than what’s best for the patients.

She has support from within her hospital though.  Chief of gastroenterology John Garvie writes:

Sister Margaret McBride is a courageous, valued member of the St. Joseph Hospital medical team and deserves our unfailing support and gratitude.

The front-page article in Saturday’s paper (“Nun rebuked over abortion to save woman”) suggests that Sister McBride violated the Catholic principle of the sanctity of life by condoning an abortion in order to save a mother’s life in her role as a member of the Ethics Committee.

Let me assure all that there is no finer defender of life at our hospital than Sister McBride.

Everyone I know considers Sister Margaret to be the moral conscience of the hospital.

She works tirelessly and selflessly as the living example and champion of compassionate, appropriate care for the sick and dying. Any suggestion to the contrary is misguided and frankly outrageous.

I am very disappointed to read that Sister Margaret’s role at the hospital has been reassigned. This leaves the impression that she did something wrong.

What she did was something very few are asked to do; namely, to make a life-and-death decision with the full recognition that in order to save one life, another life must be sacrificed.

Try to imagine the agony involved in such a decision. People not involved in these situations should reflect and not criticize.

Jacob M. Appel points out this is not the first time Bishop Olmsted has cruelly applied the letter of a law and this is not the first issue on which the Catholic Church has made immoral and illegal demands upon its caregivers.  He questions whether women are safe in Catholic hospitals and should submit themselves to them for care:

Mr. Olmsted has a reputation as a particularly stone-hearted and intransigent figure, even by the orthodox standards of Vatican hierarchy. He previously gained notoriety for refusing communion to a ten-year-old autistic child who could not swallow and later spearheaded an effort to incorporate local church parishes individually in order to shield the Phoenix archdiocese from suits by sex-abuse victims. He has also been a fierce and vocal critic of President Obama. But Mr. Omsted’s pronouncement–rather than the deranged cries of a renegade cleric–reflect a broader, deeply disturbing trend that is reshaping Catholic healthcare. Earlier this year, I drew attention to the revision of Directive 58, which now prohibits Catholic hospitals from honoring the wishes of patients–both Catholic and non-Catholic–who wish to be removed from unwanted life support equipment such as ventilators. The new policy, like the new abortion rule, is both patently illegal and widely regarded as unethical by mainstream secular and religious thinkers. Inevitably, both policies will be challenged in the courts. However, in the interim, pregnant women must ask themselves whether they can trust their care to any Catholic hospitals in the United States. Without overt assurance from the Vatican, I fear that the answer is a resounding NO.

For my fuller consideration of this story, as provoked by comments in response to this post, please read my post I have a follow-post inspired by comments here: “Moral Actions, Moral Sentiments, Moral Motives, and Moral Justifications: More On The Nun Excommunicated For Approving A Life-Saving Abortion”.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • David

    No such thing as a “life-saving abortion”. It’s an oxymoron. I wonder if they tried other methods?

    PAH is a disease characterized by narrowing of the pulmonary arteries and increased vascular resistance. Women with PAH should avoid becoming pregnant, as the physiological, cardiovascular, and pulmonary changes that occur during pregnancy can exacerbate the condition. However, several viable treatment options are available to improve the outcomes in this patient population, including inhaled nitric oxide, calcium-channel blockers, targeted pulmonary vasodilators, and sildenafil. Epoprostenol, a naturally occurring prostaglandin and vasodilator, is a pregnancy category B drug. Reproductive studies in rats and rabbits have found no impaired fertility or fetal harm at 2.5–4.8 times the recommended human dosage of epoprostenol. Most of the published case reports describe initiating epoprostenol 2–4 ng/kg/min i.v. several weeks before or near the time of delivery. Iloprost is a pregnancy category C drug but has demonstrated benefit in pregnant patients with PAH, with no congenital abnormalities and no postpartum maternal or infant mortality reported. Sildenafil causes vasodilation of the pulmonary vascular bed and vasodilation in the systemic circulation. Two case reports have described the successful treatment with sildenafil, a pregnancy category B drug, of pregnant patients with PAH. Patients with idiopathic PAH or chronic thromboembolic PAH should receive full-dose subcutaneous low-molecular-weight heparin therapy instead of warfarin for bleeding prophylaxis during pregnancy.

    Targeted pulmonary vasodilators are viable treatment options for pregnant patients with PAH. Early recognition and management of worsening symptoms are essential to improve outcomes for both the mother and infant

  • David Z

    I also disagree with the reasoning from DDE, supposing for the sake of argument that the write up presents the whole story (and that the above commenter is incorrect about alternatives). But I want to make a distinction that I think is relevant here.

    Consider the hospital’s exculpatory statement: the force of the appeal is to the nun’s virtue as one who generally values … See Morelife, and they note that she did not take the decision to be an obvious one (which is said in her defence). Some of the commenters seem to regard the decision to abort as black and white to a degree that the hospital itself evidently did not.
    The hospital touts the nun’s virtue in being able to weigh a “life-and-death decision with the full recognition that in order to save one life, another life must be sacrificed.” The hospital rightly notes the “agony” of such a decision.

    So, Question: the appeal to virtue here suggests that there WOULDS HAVE BEEN something morally crass–something outisde of what the hospital presupposes–had the nun regarded what she did as the purely obvious decision. …Premise-premise-conclusion… But then maybe I, the nun, and the hospital, are just privy to “irrational” religious moral sentiments about the value of human life.

    Now I think that we aren’t (obviously), or at least that those sentiments aren’t irrational. In fact, I think that much of what we’re all reacting to, criticizing the Church, is that the bishop has treated this as a purely obvious conclusion from basic premises. It ain’t. But yet if the nun (and hospital) aren’t on the Church’s side, then neither are they on the side of some cool-headed atheist who regards their decision to abort as clear, rational and obvious. In other words, it’s the nun’s agony, and not the bare result, that the hospital used to justify the case.

  • David Z

    that was a load of typos. that’s cause i’m religious.

    • Daniel Fincke

      that can’t be true, I make a truly unforgivable number of typos and I’m not religious.

  • Em Regan

    Don’t forget this is the same church that denies women the priesthood, while it tolerates men who abuse chidren and in fact has been hiding sex abusers from justice for decades. It is likely that if the hospital didn’t have the courage to save this woman themselves, they would have sent her to another hospital for the abortion, to save her life.

    • David

      The Church doesn’t deny women priesthood. God did that. The Church does not tolerate child abusers, and it’s not a fact that the Church have been hiding sex abusers for decades. Some bishops, of their own authority, yes. The Church generally? No. It’s also really courageous to kill an innocent child, isn’t it?

      Funny how you twist definitions around to suit your fancy.

    • Daniel Fincke

      The Church doesn’t deny women priesthood. God did that.

      Really? And how do you know that? How do you know what God does? You listen to the Church who tells you what God did and why he did it. To me, that looks indistinguishable from the Church itself doing things, unless it can provide the slightest evidence that it actually speaks for God or properly interprets God’s ways or actions or will. And it has no evidence for that.

      And anyone who does believe in a morally good God is entitled to judge that unjustly discriminatory policies could in principle not be attributed to the will of a morally perfect being consistent with that being’s moral perfection. Therefore, if one does for whatever reason believe in a morally perfect God and does believe that discriminations for professions based on characteristics irrelevant to the performance of those professions is inherently pernicious, then that person has every reason to infer that the morally good God must not have been the source of that prohibition against women priests.

      That’s if we want to be rationally consistent with principles of moral consistency and fairness and a belief in a morally perfect being.

      The Church does not tolerate child abusers, and it’s not a fact that the Church have been hiding sex abusers for decades. Some bishops, of their own authority, yes.

      No, many bishops, and in at least one documented case, with Vatican approval.

      It’s also really courageous to kill an innocent child, isn’t it?

      When it is the only way to stop both the fetus and the mother from dying, yes, it is, unbelievably courageous to do what is your only option for saving either life at all.

      Funny how you twist definitions around to suit your fancy.

      You just twisted the definition of a child. A fetus is not yet a “child” anymore than it is an “adult”.

      As PZ Myers explains insightfully from a biological perspective:

      Yes, that baby did get his genes at conception. So? A collection of genes does not make a human being. There was no teeny-tiny infant spontaneously bursting into existence at the instant a sperm cell punched into an oocyte — it was something that looked like this:

      This is a point absolutely and solidly established in biology. The embryo is not the adult. It does not contain the full information present in the newborn — that will be generated progressively, by interactions with the environment and by complex internal negotiations within an increasingly complex embryo. Pretending that 46 chromosomes in a cell is sufficient to define a person is the most absurd kind of extreme biological reductionism.

      The fertilized oocyte is a human cell, but it is not a human being.

      Way too many people think that is a sacrilegious idea — we have to cherish every single scrap of human tissue, especially the bits that have the potential to go on and develop into a child.

      No, we don’t. We don’t have to revere every block of rough marble because another Michaelangelo could come along and sculpt it into something as wonderful as his David; we don’t have to treasure every scrap of canvas because the next Picasso is going to use it for a masterpiece. The value isn’t in the raw materials, but in the pattern, the skill, the art put into it. Similarly, those cells are simply the raw clay that the process and time will sculpt into something that is worth love and care.

      Which is more important, the pigments or the painting? Even worse, do you think the pigments are the painting?

    • David

      How do I know that? Looking at His example. Show me a female priest in the Old Testament? Show me a female apostle? The Bible also shows that the Catholic Church does speak for God. And what is discriminatory about not having female priests? What can a woman not do that a priest can do? Actually, God does not discriminate, in fact his greatest creation was a woman. And last on this point, is it discriminatory that men can’t have children?

      No, not many, a few (but who cares, > 1 is reprehensible), and even the article you cite says not to take the reference too seriously. And whether it’s right or not (I think not, but accept the reasoning), most of the time, the Church was protecting the victims, more than the priests.

      Sorry, it is never, ever, ever correct to commit an evil to cause a good. This is black and white morality. And whether you like it or not there is only one thing that those cells can become-a human child.