Bishop of Phoenix Thomas J. Olmsted is “gravely concerned” after learning a direct abortion took place at a Catholic hospital, urging that an unborn child should not be seen as a disease and should never be directly killed. A Catholic ethicist also commented on the case, saying both the mother and the child deserved the best medical efforts.
The abortion took place late last year at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. The mother was 11 weeks pregnant and was seriously ill with pulmonary hypertension, the Washington Post reports. The condition limits heart and lung function and is reportedly made worse and even fatal by pregnancy.
An ethics committee which included doctors and hospital administrator Sr. Margaret McBride ruled that the abortion was necessary.
Bishop Olmsted issued a Friday statement in response to what the Diocese of Phoenix called hospital officials’ acknowledgement “that an unborn child was killed” through a direct abortion.
Saying he was “gravely concerned” by the fact that the abortion was performed, the bishop said he was further concerned by the hospital’s claim that the termination of a human life was necessary to treat the mother’s underlying medical condition.
“An unborn child is not a disease,” he insisted. While medical professionals should try to save a pregnant mother’s life, “the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child.”
“The end does not justify the means,” he insisted.
Bishop Olmsted explained that every Catholic institution is obliged to defend human life “at all its stages,” and that Catholic individuals also have this obligation.
“If a Catholic formally cooperates in the procurement of an abortion, they are automatically excommunicated by that action,” the bishop continued. “The Catholic Church will continue to defend life and proclaim the evil of abortion without compromise, and must act to correct even her own members if they fail in this duty.”
“We always must remember that when a difficult medical situation involves a pregnant woman, there are two patients in need of treatment and care; not merely one. The unborn child’s life is just as sacred as the mother’s life, and neither life can be preferred over the other.”
“The direct killing of an unborn child is always immoral, no matter the circumstances, and it cannot be permitted in any institution that claims to be authentically Catholic.”
The bishop cited Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which recognizes direct abortion as “a grave moral disorder.”
Bishop Olmsted said the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Institutions (ERDs) are “very clear” on this point.
According to the Washington Post, hospital officials defended Sr. McBride’s actions. At the same time, she has been reassigned from her job as vice president of mission integration at the hospital.
Last week Catholic Healthcare West sent to Bishop Olmsted a letter signed by board chairwoman Sr. Judith Carle and President and CEO Lloyd Dean. Seeking clarification on the directives, the letter agreed that pregnancy is “not a pathology” in a healthy mother but it claimed the case of the abortion was different because of the 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 said, according to the Arizona Republic. "We are convinced there was not."
Seeking comment, CNA contacted John Brehany, executive director and ethicist of the Catholic Medical Association.
In a Monday e-mail, he expressed “sadness” that the life of the unborn child was taken and said he regrets that the hospital did not work with the bishop and the diocese “more proactively” to avoid the situation.
Brehany said Bishop Olmsted drew attention to the “consistent and solemn teaching of the Church that one can never intentionally do evil to achieve a good end or result.” This includes never choosing an action “whose intent and direct effect is to end the life of an unborn child.
Noting “some very complicated diseases and health care conditions” which affect pregnant women, he said the Church has recognized some cases like uterine cancer in which effective treatment results in the death of the unborn child.
“To deal with these hard cases, a four-step process of moral analysis, called the principle of double effect, has been developed. Working through this process helps us to ensure that neither the intent nor the direct effect of the action proposed is morally evil,” Brehany explained.
In the case of uterine cancer treatment, the intent is to treat a dangerous disease. The means of the action, removing the mother’s diseased organ, does not directly target or kill the unborn child, “nor is the death of the unborn child the means by which the mother's life is saved.”
Judging from descriptions he had read in the press, Brehany added “it appears that teachings of the Church and this process were not appropriately followed.”
“While the mother suffered from a serious disease, it seems it was the intent of the health care providers to end the life of the child. And, the means chosen to promote the health of the woman was to abort a viable pregnancy.”
Brehany also thought Catholic moral principles were “clear” in the case and the abortion was not consistent with Catholic morals.
Acknowledging “hard cases” which moral theologians struggle to understand, he said he was not sure the Phoenix case rises to such a level of difficulty.
CNA asked Brehany what people should understand about Catholic ethics in this case.
“The Church is motivated by sincere love for all human persons in need. In this case, there were two patients -- mother and child. Both are human beings and both are worthy of our best efforts in medicine.
“Many times in life it is easier to focus on some people and to avoid or overlook the needs of others,” he warned. “The respect for life that still undergirds our Western culture has been the source of many positive developments in technology and medical practice that have saved countless lives.”
“The most important things people can do are to choose morally good actions and avoid morally evil actions. There are many tragedies in life. We cannot always prevent bad things from happening to people.
“Many times we are faced with hard choices. But what we can never ethically do -- because our ultimate goal is to follow the will of God and build his kingdom on earth -- is to choose to do evil, even when it appears that it will result in highly desirable and understandable results.”