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By Elizabeth Tenety
When an 11-weeks pregnant woman suffering serious health complications entered St. Joseph’s Hospital, a Catholic medical center in Phoenix, Arizona last year, her care turned into a complicated tangle of moral wrangling that ended yesterday with the Bishop of Phoenix declaring that the hospital was no longer “Catholic.”
Ed Pilkington at the Guardian details the situation that the family, the hospital and its ethics committee faced:
“Tests showed that in the early stages of pregnancy her condition deteriorated rapidly and that before long her pulmonary hypertension – which can impair the working of the heart and lungs – had begun to seriously threaten her life. Doctors informed her that the risk of death was close to 100% if she continued with the pregnancy.”
Believing that the woman’s life was in imminent danger, Sr. Margaret Mary McBride, a Catholic nun who oversaw the hospital’s ethics committee, reasoned that an abortion to save the life of the mother was in line with Directive 47 of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s guidelines for Catholic healthcare services. That statement reads:
“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.”
So, even though the Catholic church fiercely defends a fetus’s right to life, the ethics committee believed that this teaching permitted their ‘direct purpose’ to save the woman’s life, “even if [it] will result in the death of the unborn child.” As they saw it, the medical staff acted to directly save the life of the pregnant woman. They did not see the abortion, they say, as an act to intentionally kill the child, but rather “to save the life we can save,” the hospital has since said, an act of self-defense.
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted saw it differently. From his statement:
“The exceptional cases, mentioned in ERD #47, were not met, that is, that there was not a cancerous uterus or other grave malady that might justify an indirect and unintended termination of the life of the baby to treat the grave illness. In this case, the baby was healthy and there were no problems with the pregnancy; rather, the mother had a disease that needed to be treated. But instead of treating the disease, St. Joseph’s medical staff and ethics committee decided that the healthy, 11-week-old baby should be directly killed. This is contrary to the teaching of the Church (Cf. Evangelium Vitae, #62).”
After learning about the procedure, Olmsted informed McBride that by her sanction of the abortion, she had excommunicated herself from the Catholic Church.
Olmsted held discussions with the hospital and on Tuesday announced that due to the hospital’s actions in this and other cases involving human sexuality, St. Joseph’s may no longer consider itself “Catholic.” (The other cases involve the hospital “cooperating” with health care clinics that provide contraception, and in some cases, abortion for women who have been raped.)
In response, the Catholic Health Association, which represents more than 600 Catholic hospitals and 1,400 long-term care facilities and says its mission is to provide health care “guided by the Gospel and the moral teachings of the Catholic Church,” expressed support for St. Joseph’s. Characterizing the situation as “heartbreaking,” CHA President Sr. Carol Keehan said the hospital “carefully evaluated the patient’s situation and correctly applied the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services to it, saving the only life that was possible to save.”
Mar Muñoz-Visoso, assistant director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Wednesday that “the specific case of the Phoenix hospital is a local issue within the realm of the authority of the local bishop.”
Since the hospital is funded largely through payment for medical procedures and does not receive direct funding from the diocese, the financial effect of the stripping of Catholic status is minimal.
Perhaps the most significant change is Olmsted’s announcement that Mass will no longer be celebrated at the chapel and that the Eucharist will be removed “to avoid the impression that the hospital is authentically Catholic.”
Did the hospital misinterpret the teaching? In this context, what does “authentically Catholic” mean?
More On Faith and abortion:
US Bishops’ response to questions Bishop Olmsted and the abortion controversy