The Dignity of Human Life

I’ve been criticizing the Roman Catholic church a lot this year, but I can’t help it: every month, they’re in the headlines again with some new outrage that I can’t let pass. And now they’ve done it again.

In November 2009, a woman – three months pregnant, and already a mother of four – came to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. She was suffering from pulmonary hypertension, a life-threatening complication of pregnancy that can lead to stroke or heart failure. Her condition was worsening, and the doctors judged that if she continued her pregnancy, her death was certain. They therefore carried out the only possible treatment, a surgical abortion.

But St. Joseph’s is also a Catholic hospital. In May, Thomas Olmsted, the bishop of Phoenix, declared that Margaret McBride, a nun serving on the hospital’s ethics committee, was “automatically excommunicated” because she had consented to the abortion (see also). Olmsted demanded that the hospital certify that such a procedure would never occur there again, not even to save a woman’s life. To their credit, the hospital refused, and Olmsted responded by officially stripping them of their Catholic affiliation. The contrast between their words and beliefs – one concerned with saving human lives, the other with obedience to religious dogma – couldn’t be clearer:

Linda Hunt, president of St. Joseph’s, said doctors performed a necessary procedure on a patient who was getting worse by the minute and was in imminent danger of death.

“If we are presented with a situation in which a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life, our first priority is to save both patients. If that is not possible, we will always save the life we can save, and that is what we did in this case,” Hunt said. “Morally, ethically, and legally, we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save.”

“In point of fact, throughout our dialogue and cooperative efforts during these last few months, it is more than apparent that the position of [St. Joseph's hospital] is that discerning minds can disagree… But this resolution is unacceptable because it disregards my authority and responsibility to interpret the moral law and to teach the Catholic faith as a Successor of the Apostles.”

Since the hospital wasn’t owned or financially supported by the church, the actual impact of this decision is nil. The only real change is that Mass will no longer be held in the chapel. But the bishop’s decision sends a clear message about what he values, and that message is that women’s health and lives are of no concern to the Vatican. Ironically, the church is echoing the position of its bitterest enemy, Martin Luther, who allegedly said, “Even though women grow weary and wear themselves out with child-bearing, it does not matter; let them go on bearing children till they die, that is what they are there for.”

What’s most appalling is that the bishop’s letter to the hospital doesn’t argue any of the facts at issue. He doesn’t dispute that the woman’s life was in grave danger, or that abortion was the only possible treatment. If his position was that abortion can be justified if it’s the only way to save the woman’s life but that this was not the case in this instance, you’d expect him to dispute these facts. But he doesn’t. The only possible conclusion is that his opinion, and by extension the Catholic church’s opinion, is that in future cases like this one, the doctors should do nothing and the woman and the fetus should both be left to die.

This is of a piece with the church’s other decisions consistently valuing obedience to dogma above human lives and well-being, such as their well-known stance that they’d rather see children go homeless than place them with loving, stable same-sex parents, and that they’d rather see Africans die of AIDS than encourage them to use condoms. Their contempt for women’s lives – treating them as disposable baby-making machines, to be discarded when worn out or defective – is a continuation of this.

But in the end, however much the bishop may sputter and stamp his feet, the wicked and heartless church lost and the good guys won. There are four children who still have their mother because human rights and rationality prevailed over this petty medieval principality. If the bishop wants to withdraw his endorsement from this hospital for saving a woman’s life, then I’m glad: it only underscores the point of how useless and irrelevant the Catholic hierarchy has become. It makes no difference to the hospital’s continued ability to restore health and save lives.

There are Catholic individuals, like Margaret McBride, who are people of courage and conscience, who run schools, hospitals and other important and necessary institutions. But for the most part, their views are more progressive than the pompous, tyrannical old men who run the church. Nearly every moral advance that’s been helped along by Catholic laypeople has been made in direct defiance of the hierarchy, and as the church shrinks and grows even more conservative, this will probably become all the more true.

Weekend Coffee: May 31
The Charleston Shooting Is No Mystery
Obamacare's Victory Is a Defeat For Fundamentalism
New on the Guardian: Can There Be an Atheist Vote?
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X