Sister violated more than Catholic teaching in sanctioning abortion, ethicist says

ppjohnhaas180510 Dr. John Haas, President of the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

A religious sister who was on a Catholic hospital panel that approved a direct abortion has excommunicated herself, the Diocese of Phoenix said on Tuesday. While one of the hospital’s doctors has defended the sister, a Catholic ethicist says direct abortion is a “crime” against the unborn child who is killed.

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, a condition worsened and possibly made fatal by pregnancy, according to the Washington Post.

An ethics committee which included doctors and hospital administrator Sr. Margaret McBride ruled that the abortion was necessary. Sr. McBride has been reassigned from her job as vice president of mission integration at the hospital.

In a Tuesday “Questions & Answers” document, the Diocese of Phoenix’s Office of Communications explained that Sr. McBride was excommunicated because “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. Since she gave her consent and encouraged an abortion she automatically excommunicated herself from the Church.”

But Dr. John Garvie, chief of gastroenterology at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, defended Sr. McBride in an opinion piece published Tuesday in the Arizona Republic, calling her a “courageous” and “valued” member of the hospital leadership.

He characterized the Saturday article in the paper as suggesting that Sr. McBride “violated the Catholic principle of the sanctity of life by condoning an abortion in order to save a mother’s life.”

“Let me assure all that there is no finer defender of life at our hospital than Sister McBride,” Garvie wrote, saying the sister is considered the “moral conscience of the hospital.”

Calling the sister a “champion of compassionate, appropriate care for the sick and dying,” he said he was disappointed that she had been reassigned. “This leaves the impression that she did something wrong,” the doctor argued. “What she did was something very few are asked to do; namely, to make a life-and-death decision with the full recognition that in order to save one life, another life must be sacrificed.”

His letter concluded by saying medicine will always be “an imperfect science.”

CNA spoke about the Phoenix case and Dr. Garvie’s opinion piece in a Tuesday phone call with Dr. John Haas, president of the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Haas emphasized he did not know the exact details of the case or what kind of information had been presented to Sr. McBride and the hospital’s advisory board. He speculated that the information was possibly not clear enough or perhaps misunderstood.

“What I can say is that a direct abortion, a direct killing of an innocent human life, is always wrong. If that is precisely what occurred in this case, then that was wrong.

“Any direct assault upon an innocent human life violates the sanctity of human life.

“One cannot directly sacrifice one life to save another,” he explained, because this “places greater value on one life over another. Every life is equally precious in the sight of God and inviolable.”

Responding to Dr. Garvie’s opinion piece, Haas also addressed some clinical questions. He reported that many physicians have told him that one “almost never” encounters a situation in modern medicine in which a life would have to be sacrificed to safe another.

“There are ways in which the dilemma can be addressed that might indirectly pose a threat to the life of the unborn child, which may indeed result, indirectly, in the loss of the life of the unborn child,” he explained, noting interventions to treat the underlying illness or pathology the mother is suffering. “But one cannot directly take the life of an innocent child.”

To say this is not medicine, but rather the statement of “an inviolable moral principle.” “It doesn’t matter if you’re engaged in a just war, where you cannot directly kill non-combatants, or whether you’re involved in a hospital situation,” he added.

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“We have to be clear that this is not just a teaching of the Church,” Dr. Haas told CNA. “The direct taking of innocent human life through abortion was something criminally sanctioned by the state. It continues to be a crime against the one who is killed through this action.”

“We just have to preserve the sanctity of each individual human life.

“Who’s going to begin defining the circumstances in which an innocent person may be killed?

“It is dangerous enough for just one single person, as in this case. But if you establish as a principle that a life can be taken under certain circumstances, then nobody is safe.”

He alluded to a song from the Gilbert and Sullivan musical “The Mikado,” in which the Lord High Executioner character applies the death penalty for increasingly trivial offenses.

“It’s a parody, but it just points out that you can’t breach the moral law.”

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