In March of this year, Sister Margaret Mary McBride, a member of the order of the Sisters of Mercy and head of the ethics committee at St. Joseph Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, was declared excommunicated by Thomas J. Olmsted, the bishop of Phoenix. In late 2009, the nun and her committee had agreed with the decision of doctors to abort the fetus of a 27-year-old mother of four who would almost certainly die if the abortion were not performed.
After initially rejecting the doctors’ recommendation that her pregnancy be terminated, the woman consented when her condition — “very severe pulmonary arterial hypertension with profoundly reduced cardiac output” — worsened and it became apparent that both she and her unborn child would die if the abortion were not carried out. She was too ill to be moved to another hospital.
Directive 45 of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Services states the following: “Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted. Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion.” And Canon 1398 of the Code of Canon Law states: “A person who actually procures an abortion incurs…excommunication.” Bishop Olmsted said that Sister Margaret Mary had in fact excommunicated herself by approving a direct abortion.
Bishop Olmsted’s decision has sparked outrage among friends and supporters of Sister Margaret and among her colleagues at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Dr. James Garvie, chief of gastroenterology at St. Joseph’s, made the following comments in a letter to the Arizona Republic: “Let me assure all that there is no finer defender of life at our hospital than Sister McBride. Everyone I know considers Sister Margaret to be the moral conscience of the hospital. She works tirelessly and selflessly as the living example and champion of compassionate, appropriate care for the sick and dying. Any suggestion to the contrary is misguided and frankly outrageous.” News commentators and religious bloggers, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, have also strongly voiced their concern.
Catholic canon lawyers, moral theologians and ethicists have also weighed in, mainly in the Catholic press. Dominican Father Kevin O’Rourke, a canon lawyer and bioethicist, pointed out that the ethics committee on which Sister Margaret served had to wrestle with the “distinction between a direct and an indirect abortion.” He argues that the question is complicated by “the difficulty in identifying the cause of pulmonary hypertension in this case and thus identifying the pathological organ.” Apparently there is no precedent in Catholic theological texts to provide a clear answer in this case.
And this from the National Catholic Reporter: “On the canonical level, Fr. James A. Coriden, a professor of canon law at Washington Theological Union, said he believes McBride, as a hospital administrator, was not subject to the penalty because she could not be considered a direct agent of the abortion or a necessary accomplice, as defined in canon law.”
These Catholic experts, many of them priests, must be circumspect in their criticism of Olmsted’s move lest they incur the wrath of higher Church authorities and put their academic positions at Catholic universities in jeopardy. Or it may be that the theological hair-splitting in which they feel compelled to engage is simply a reflection of a life immersed in the intellectual pursuits of Catholic academia.
Whatever the cause, the hair-splitting appears ridiculous at best given the circumstances of this case: a mother of four whose life is at risk; a Catholic nun who has given her life to the Church and to those in need of health care making a heart-wrenching decision to save a life; and a bishop—with apparently no training in medical ethics and only a superficial understanding of canon law — who has the power to catastrophically affect both lives.
In addition to the obvious lack of charity toward Sister Margaret, there is a question of common sense here. The Church’s strict prohibition against abortion is based on the belief in the sanctity of all life. By approving the termination of the ill mother’s pregnancy, Sister Margaret Mary allegedly participated in the killing of the fetus by direct abortion, an act which is “never permitted.”
Yet failure to abort the fetus would have resulted in the deaths of both the fetus and the mother. It follows that if the nun had not approved the abortion and both mother and unborn child had died, she would have participated in the indirect killing of two people. Yet she would have escaped all sanction from the Church because the killing was indirect.
The argument of the Church would be that direct abortion is killing life; in other words, taking into our own hands what only God may do. By not performing the abortion the hospital would be allowing the mother and child to die a natural death — letting God do his work. But when we have the means, through modern med
icine, to save the life of one person of the two, is not the preservation of that life, precious in the eyes of God, the natural — and morally appropriate — choice to make? By allowing someone to die who would otherwise be able to live a healthy and long life, is the Church not committing an immoral act?
The case of Sister Margaret Mary McBride is another sad example of the preference of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church for power and control — and for punishment when power is challenged — over the qualities of mercy and charity. Sister Margaret has been called “saintly” by many for her service to the Church and to her community. A number of adjectives come to mind that may be applied to Bishop Olmsted; they do not include “saintly.”
“The Sisters of Mercy in Vicksburg 01″ Paul Lowry @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“A Lovely Billboard in Arlington, Mn” Chuckumentary @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Sister Margaret McBride”
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