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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • Ryan

    It’s like there’s a contest among Catholic leadership to see who can best illustrate the total moral bankruptcy of the Church. I have a large Catholic family on my mother’s side, and I am frankly dumbfounded that they (good people all) haven’t simply renounced the church at this point. I have a feeling they, like many Catholics, are determined to wait out this pope. But people like Olmsted prove that it isn’t just this pope — the entire Church hierarchy is utterly destitute of simple human morality.

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    Now now, although it’s true that the Bishop insists that abortion is not permitted, even if the fetus is doomed anyway and the mother would otherwise die, it’s not like Catholics aren’t offering helpful suggestions. Here’s what you need to do under similar circumstances, according to Catholic Answers:

    We must pray that the National Catholic Bioethics Center can help your niece’s doctors in finding a treatment that will seek to save both mother and child. But if, God forbid, that is not possible, we must both pray for a miracle (St. Gianna Beretta Molla would be a fine choice to petition for intercession) and for your niece to have the grace and strength to be willing to lay down her life for her child (John 15:13).

  • javaman

    So what I’m getting is that the death of the mother and possibly the baby (or the baby having gross brain damage due to this dangerous situation) was or is god’s will or part of his loving plan for us? Gee ! thanks alot for kind and loving ways !

  • Monty

    If I’m understanding them right, an abortion is murder, but refusing to administer a life-saving medical treatment isn’t? I don’t know where they come up with these double standards.

  • Ryan

    If I’m understanding them right, an abortion is murder, but refusing to administer a life-saving medical treatment isn’t? I don’t know where they come up with these double standards.

    It’s the active-vs.-passive thing. It’s only murder if you take active steps to save the non-doomed life. Refusing to render aid to the suffering, however, is just fine. It’s like Jesus said:

    “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

    “And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

    “But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was; and when he saw him, he set up a lawn chair and took his ease, sipping a fruity drink and watching as the wounded man died, but praying always for a miracle to deliver him. And when the man had breathed his last, the Samaritan arose and folded up his chair and deposited his empty cup in a trash receptacle and said, ‘Behold, the ways of the Lord are mysterious,’ and went his way.

    “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?”

    And he said, “He that prayed ineffectually whilst eschewing active aid.” And Jesus said unto him, “Go, and do thou likewise.”

    Unless I’m remembering it wrong.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    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.

    It’s been my understanding that this is precisely what the church’s official position has been, and will continue to be until…. Like you, I was appalled when I read this story and was reminded yet again of how thoroughly depraved an institution the Catholic Church is.

  • gole

    @Ryan

    This is my first ever comment after reading this blog for over a year simply because you made me laugh out loud in my office. Kudos to you good sir.

  • http://killedbyfish.blogspot.com/ feralboy12

    The man is more concerned with his authority than with saving lives.
    I always suspected that organized religion, especially catholicism, was more about authority than people’s lives, health, and happiness; I never thought they would actually admit it.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    It never ceases to amaze me that religious leaders in the Catholic Church can go on and on about the importance of human life and about how pro-life they are while letting people die. They care more about dogma than about life.

    @Ryan (comment #5): That is hilarious and sad at the same time.

  • kennypo65

    I have commented before on this site that I was raised catholic and educated in catholic school from k-8. I had also commented that it saddened me that the individuals that were such a positive influence on my life would be painted with the same brush that the narrow-minded idiots in the Vatican are. Thank you for recognizing that there are people of conscience who put their humanity over dogma. This recent action of the church is no suprise to me. These pathetic old farts care only about being the authority, not about being human. If one takes the time to study the gnostic gospels, one will understand why they are not part of the canon. The theme that runs through all of them is that the church is not necessary. The kingdom of God lies within the individual. These texts were rejected 1800 years ago, due, IMHO to the fact that the church isn’t about God, it’s about power. It’s the same when theists want to call the U.S. a christian nation, enforce school prayer, teach creationism in science class, and keep “under god” in the pledge of allegance. These actions have nothing to do with religious faith. They are desperate acts of people who fear losing their power and influence.

  • Em

    What makes it even worse is that there are loopholes in canon law the bishop could have used were he so inclined. Somebody, sometime in the Catholic church decided that sometimes you have to break one of their rules to save a life. And it turns out the Catholic health care codes say specifically, “Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.” But the bishop clearly wasn’t looking to see if there’s any way he could let the nun off the hook for saving a woman’s life, nor does the church hierarchy at large seem to be protesting his decision. Having rules that could cause people to die is awful. Having exceptions that would allow you not to punish someone who saved a life and punishing people anyway says you really don’t give a damn about anything except the power trip. Why try to be worse than official dogma dictates?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    It’s like there’s a contest among Catholic leadership to see who can best illustrate the total moral bankruptcy of the Church.

    I couldn’t agree more, Ryan. And between reinstating a Holocaust denier, asking a congregation victimized by sex abuse to pay the church’s legal bills, telling impoverished populations that condoms make AIDS worse, and more, they’ve got some tough competition.

    I have a large Catholic family on my mother’s side, and I am frankly dumbfounded that they (good people all) haven’t simply renounced the church at this point. I have a feeling they, like many Catholics, are determined to wait out this pope.

    That may well be. But what your relatives have probably overlooked is that this has always been the church’s position. This pope is just making it more obvious. For example, El Salvador’s brutal abortion law, which bans abortion under all circumstances, even to save a woman’s life, was passed in 1998 with heavy lobbying from the church.

    Peter N (#2): Thanks for finding that quote. Even if not written by a bishop, it so neatly sums up the horrifying position of the church hierarchy that it’s worth keeping for future citation. What makes it especially revolting is the author’s encouraging the woman to “lay down her life for her child”, which is such a faulty and dishonest description of the situation. I can comprehend the idea of an expectant mother willingly giving up her own life for the sake of her child, but if her fetus dies with her, there’s not even that minimal consolation! This apologist is, literally, instructing this woman to die for no reason.

    Also, I wanted to mention something else that didn’t occur to me when I first wrote this article. The ACLU has pointed out that it is illegal for any hospital, including a religious hospital, to deny life-saving emergency care. (Technically, that’s only the case for hospitals which accept Medicaid payments, but that’s essentially all of them.)

    Thus, in treating this woman, St. Joseph’s wasn’t just acting voluntarily, it was fulfilling its obligation under the law. Yet the bishop commanded them to pledge that they would never do this in a similar circumstance again. In other words, he was arguably ordering them to commit an illegal act. Was he not aware of this? Or do his delusions run so deep that he thinks his decrees overrule the American legal system?

  • Ryan

    …this has always been the church’s position. This pope is just making it more obvious.

    Good point, Ebon. A lot of people only think about the feel-good aspects of religion, while never stopping to consider the less savory things their faith commands. That was certainly the case with me for a lomg time.

  • Brock

    ” Or do his delusions run so deep that he thinks his decrees overrule the American legal system?”
    Apparently, Ebon, this is exactly what he thinks. I recently read a book “The Case against the Pope” by English jurist Geoffrey Robertson, which argues that the actions of the heirarchy for the past several years, and specifically in regards to the sex abuse scandals, indicates that they have no regard at all for the laws of the countries in which they operate, and consider themselves to be representatives of the pseudo-state set up by Mussolini and the “pro-fascist” pope Pius XI(Robertson’s characterization, with which I agree, based on what I know of him). In other words, the laws of the Vatican override the laws of any other country, even though the priests they protect are American citizens, not citizens of Vatican City, or that they are dual citizens by virtue of their allegiance to the church(Pseudo-government of a pseudo-state)and isn some way are therefore entitiled to de facto diplomatic immunity. The book was fascinating, and devastating in its indictment, andI highly recommend it.

  • Demonhype

    I love this crap they pull with excommunication. Margaret McBride is a hero (not a term I use lightly), and I just hope she remembers that Joan of Arc was also excommunicated. She wasn’t excommunicated for such heroic reasons–she was asked to deny her voices–and the terror of such a punishment caused her to acquiesce. Her voices chastised her over the night, telling her that excommunication was essentially meaningless, and she ended up rescinding what she’d agreed to. Of course, she was standing up for what she understood to be the truth, against the power and might and threat of the church she’d been raised to revere as the sole authority of mankind. And that still took strong principles and a lot of guts.

    (I was confirmed under duress, and I chose Joan of Arc because she was the only really interesting and effectual female saint, on a number of counts–how many saints were once excommunicated and burned as witches, after all? So many parallels to Jesus too–lowly beginnings, rising to a rather quick and audacious following, betrayal by someone close to her, forced to renounce her claims of divine guidance or die, defiance of the religious standards/powers of her own religious order, ignominious and painful execution, post-mortem deification, that sort of thing. Even as an atheist, I find her very interesting.)

    I know it would be preferable for her to realize the whole hierarchy and mythology is evil, self-aggrandizing, power-hungry bullshit, but if she can’t do that due to too much attachment to the beliefs, it would likely do her good to remember another woman excommunicated for standing on her principles and defying the church’s power. At least the church can’t kill McBride nowadays, and she’s got a lot more people–Christian and otherwise–defending her and lauding her as a wonderful human–one far better than that powerful evil inhuman monster of a church. At least in this case, the mantle of “bad guy” is right where it belongs, on the victimizer rather than the victim.

    Of course, there is that one female saint who was almost excommunicated in the 1800′s for exposing the priestly child-rape that even then was going on, but that’s relatively new. Still, another good one to keep in mind.

    Is it my imagination, or is it often females–frequently nuns–who usually end up standing up against the church’s abuse of power? It really is too bad that they get caught up in that in the first place. I feel that such good people could have done a heck of a lot more without having to kowtow to such a bastion of medieval-minded power-hungry jerks. Hopefully Margaret McBride will find even more opportunity to help others now that she doesn’t have to curb her humanity and decency to please the Pope’s antiquated and anti-human views.

  • http://www.facepunch.com/member.php?u=298989 Jeep-Eep

    Truth be told, I’m surprised some anti-choicer hasn’t turned up yet. Sure, bad thread for it. But has that ever stopped ‘em?

  • Nathaniel

    I’m not surprised. At least online, anti-choicers are generally preachers and bullies. They go after what they see as “easy” targets, basically when “sluts” aka sexual women are involved. The near death of a mother of four offers no such pleasures for them.

  • Fred

    “The near death of a mother of four offers no such pleasures for them.”

    Of course it doesn’t offer any damn pleasure for us. It’s a tragedy.

    Tragedies happen. People die. We should try to prevent them. But we cannot do so by immoral means. Morality requires logic, not just doing what feels right, or is less likely to make you cry at night. Don’t be too quick to dismiss the moral systems you disagree with, especially the ones that survived for many centuries. If they were as obviously broken as some of you seem to think, they would have fallen apart long ago.

    For some reason Stumble brought me here, but as all I see is random people making pronouncements that other people are morons, I do not think it will be a regular thing.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Tragedies happen. People die. We should try to prevent them. But we cannot do so by immoral means.

    What, pray tell, is immoral about saving the life of a mother?


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