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The Deacon's Bench

The circumstances were extraordinary — and the decision, I’m sure, was not easy to make. But the result has sparked a growing controversy in Arizona, where even the bishop has now intervened.

From the Arizona Republic:

A Catholic nun and longtime administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix was reassigned in the wake of a decision to allow a pregnancy to be ended in order to save the life of a critically ill patient.

The decision also drew a sharp rebuke from Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, head of the Phoenix Diocese, who indicated the woman was “automatically excommunicated” because of the action.

Neither the hospital nor the bishop’s office would address whether the bishop had a direct role in her demotion. He does not have control of the hospital as a business but is the voice of moral authority over any Catholic institution operating in the diocese.

The actions involving the administrator, mostly taken within the past couple of weeks, followed a last-minute, life-or-death drama in late 2009. The patient had a rare and often fatal condition in which a pregnancy can cause the death of the mother.

Sister Margaret McBride, who had been vice president of mission integration at the hospital, was on call as a member of the hospital’s ethics committee when the surgery took place, hospital officials said. She was part of a group of people, including the patient and doctors, who decided upon the course of action.

The patient was not identified, and details of her case cannot be revealed under federal privacy laws.

The Catholic Church forbids abortion in all circumstances and allows the termination of a pregnancy only as a secondary effect of other treatments, such as radiation of a cancerous uterus…

<snip>

…According to the medical directives that the hospital follows, abortion is defined as the directly intended termination of pregnancy, and it is not permitted under any circumstances – even to save the life of the mother.

On the other hand, a second directive says that “operations, treatments and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted . . . even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.”

A letter sent Monday from Catholic Healthcare West, signed by Sister Judith Carle, board chairwoman, and President and CEO Lloyd Dean, asks Olmsted to provide further clarification about the directives. Agreeing that in a healthy mother, pregnancy is “not a pathology,” it says this case was different. The pregnancy, the letter says, carried a nearly certain risk of death for the mother.

“If there had been a way to save the pregnancy and still prevent the death of the mother, we would have done it,” the letter says. “We are convinced there was not.”

Visit the link for more, including some opinions from medical ethicists.

UPDATE: The complete statements by the hospital and the Diocese of Phoenix can be read right here.

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