Nun Excommunicated for Saving Mother's Life By Aborting 11-Week-Old Fetus

8 years ago

A Catholic nun and hospital administrator, Sister Margaret McBride, was on call when
a pregnant mother of four children came to a Catholic hospital in Phoenix in critical condition in late 2009. Sister Margaret was part of a group that consulted official church teaching before approving life-saving procedures for the dying mother that resulted in the loss of an 11-week-old fetus. Bishop Olmstead of Phoenix, Arizona, who oversees the diocese in which this took place, heard about it months later and immediately excommunicated Sr. Margaret and anyone else associated with the decision or the medical measures taken. The nun was also demoted. Here is how the story unfolded.

According to the National Catholic Reporter:

[The mother] had a rare and often fatal condition called pulmonary hypertension in which a pregnancy can make things much worse. She was 11 weeks pregnant ... Pulmonary hypertension limits the ability of the heart and lungs to function properly, especially when confronted with the physical changes that accompany pregnancy.

The mother was so near death, NPR reports that she was even too fragile to move to the operating room. It became clear that there were two choices, both involving agonizing decision-making in this setting:

Entrance Sign for Emergency Room

1. Do nothing. Both the baby and the mother will die. At 11 weeks, the fetus is not viable enough to save.

2. Perform a procedure to save the woman's life that will end the life potential of the fetus but save the life of the mother.

This was a Catholic hospital. They do not perform abortions. An emergency meeting of the Ethics Group at the hospital was held. They read and reviewed Directive 47, the U.S. Catholic Church's ethical guidelines for health care providers : "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."

The committee concluded that in this emergency case, the loss of the fetus as a result of medical treatment of the mother was the medical option that must be taken. The mother agreed. They believed that they were within the guidelines of the church they serve. Sister McBride, who is reported to be a strong advocate of Right to Life, agreed.

A few months later, the Bishop of Sister McBride's diocese excommunicated her, the mother and everyone else associated with the effort to save the mother's life.

The National Catholic Reporter continues :

A statement from the diocese said, McBride was excommunicated because she "held a position of authority at the hospital and was frequently consulted on ethical matters. She gave her consent that the abortion was a morally good and allowable act according to church teaching. Furthermore, she admitted this directly to Bishop Olmsted."

CNN reports that Father Kevin O'Rourke, a canon lawyer at Loyola University in Chicago, is familiar with McBride's case and says it is "very unusual" for a nun to be excommunicated. He adds, "In order to have an excommunication be valid, the person has to act out of deliberate desire to violate the law ... there has to be malice involved." O'Rourke says there doesn't appear to be malice involved in Sister McBride's decision.

NPR also interviewed a canon lawyer:

... According to the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer, the bishop "clearly had other alternatives than to declare her excommunicated." Doyle says Olmsted could have looked at the situation, realized that the nun faced an agonizing choice and shown her some mercy.

The Bishop has issued a long statement that reiterates his position and also describes exactly what excommunication means. It is a VERY big thing for Catholics, especially those who are part of religious communities, such as a nun. Here is his FAQ on excommunication:

What does it mean that a person has been excommunicated?
A person may not participate in the Sacraments, including the celebration of the Eucharist or any other act of public worship. They also may not hold any ministerial position within the Church or be allowed to exercise any authority. In short, their own action has placed them outside the Church.

And there is more - Modern reports that the bishop has threatened to remove the recognition of that hospital as a Catholic institution if such things continue.

The hospital's statement is:

“We have always adhered to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services as we carry out our healing ministry and we continue to abide by them,” St. Joseph's hospital said in a written statement. “In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother's life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy.”

Sister Margret McBride has not made any public statement.

The main point that I see here is not whether or not a woman should have an abortion. That argument could go on for columns and columns and get nowhere. People have their minds made up, like it or not. And I don't want us wasting bandwidth rehearsing the same arguments on either side that have been stated here a million times.

It just seems to me that good Catholic people did their best in making a decision which they felt was within church guidelines. I am sure they struggled with that decision. They are punished for it. Why?

It is, as stated above, even more galling when not even one of the pedophile priests have been excommunicated. Some may have been defrocked, but none have been cast outside of the church.

BlogHers join me in my puzzlement about such things:
Kay at City of Angels who is, herself, a victim of a pedophile priest, says: "The bishop's response was to publicly damage the good reputation of a woman who has, by all accounts, dedicated much of her life to caring for those in need. "

Liliana Loofbourow, a blogger at Ms. magazine points out -- "Nor is this a one-time stance. Last March, after it was discovered that a 9-year-old girl in Brazil was raped by her stepfather and was pregnant with twins as a result, her mother arranged for her to have an abortion, as she was unlikely to survive the pregnancy. The Catholic Church excommunicated the girl’s mother and the doctors who saved her life. The stepfather was allowed to remain in the Church."

Carolyn at Strollerderby says "No woman who wants a child would willingly abort her fetus. But in a matter of life and death, the decision is fairly simple. You save your life and try again to have a baby. The Catholic Church is so archaic when it comes to sex and reproduction, I’m surprised they don’t blame women for having miscarriages. I’m not suggesting the Catholic Church start advocating abortion – as I’ve said before, I understand their need to take a moral stance on social issues. But I think that excommunicating a nun for saving a life is ridiculous."

Blogher has no official stance on such things. I can be quite opinionated about a lot of things, especially the need for mercy and compassion.

~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs right along at Time's Fool

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