After Bishop Thomas Olmsted publicly condemned an abortion authorized by Sr. Margaret McBride in a Catholic hospital in Arizona, and after much public outcry, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Doctrine has released a statement supporting the Phoenix bishop's decision.
A June 23 statement from the USCCB Committee on Doctrine addresses the Arizona controversy, and calls upon the teachings of the Holy Fathers to explain the issue at hand. “The Distinction between Direct Abortion and Legitimate Medical Procedures” clarifies Church teaching, and applies it succinctly to the Arizona case.
Church teaching, said the statement, holds that direct abortion is never permissible. Direct abortion is an act whose primary intent is to terminate a pregnancy and kill an unborn child. However, medical procedures which have other primary intentions, and which indirectly end the life of the unborn child, are not considered to be direct abortions nor immoral.
“The difference can be seen in two different scenarios in which the unborn child is not yet old enough to survive outside the womb,” says the statement. “In the first scenario, a pregnant woman is experiencing problems with one or more of her organs, apparently as a result of the added burden of pregnancy. The doctor recommends an abortion to protect the health of the woman.”
“In the second scenario, a pregnant woman develops cancer in her uterus. The doctor recommends surgery to remove the cancerous uterus as the only way to prevent the spread of the cancer. Removing the uterus will also lead to the death of the unborn child, who cannot survive at this point outside the uterus.”
The first scenario is an example of a direct abortion, because the surgery directly targets the life of the child. The procedure only affects the function of the woman’s organs, and thus her health, in an indirect way, explained the document. “As the Church has said many times, direct abortion is never permissible because a good end cannot justify an evil means.”
In the second scenario, the surgery “indirectly and unintentionally (although foreseeably) results in the death of an unborn child.” However, it “directly addresses the health problem of the woman” and her “health benefits directly from the surgery, because of the removal of the cancerous organ.”
In that scenario, “the surgery does not directly target the life of the unborn child,” explains the statement. “The death of the child is an unintended and unavoidable side effect and not the aim of the surgery.”
The bishops also cited Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae,” in which he says, “It is true that the decision to have an abortion is often tragic and painful for the mother, insofar as the decision to rid herself of the fruit of conception is not made for purely selfish reasons or out of convenience, but out of a desire to protect certain important values such as her own health or a decent standard of living for the other members of the family… Nevertheless, these reasons and others like them, however serious and tragic, can never justify the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.”
The statement also addressed the abortion that took place in Phoenix last November.
Though some argued the abortion was performed on a woman whose life was threatened by pulmonary hypertension and was a legitimate medical procedure, the Doctrine Committee noted that Bishop Thomas Olmsted ruled that the procedure was a direct abortion and morally wrong. The committee did not correct Bishop Olmsted's conclusion.
It is hoped that the statement will also clear up any confusion among the faithful as to Church teaching following extensive coverage of the issue by national media outlets.