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”.

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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.