Catholic Nun Excommunicated for Approving A Life-Saving Abortion

There have been a lot of encroachments on a woman’s right to choose, all on the state level, in the past few months.  But – and I never thought I’d have to say this – we are relatively fortunate that when a mother’s life is at risk, abortion is seen by secular institutions as an unquestioned right.  This is apparently complicated by the intersections between religion and reproductive freedom, which play out in very real ways in Catholic hospitals.  Last week, a Catholic nun who worked in such a hospital was excommunicated and demoted by Thomas J. Olmsted, the Catholic bishop of Phoenix, Arizona, for approving the termination of a pregnancy that would otherwise have resulted in the death of the mother.

Sister Margaret McBride, an administrator at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, was part of the hospital ethics committee that approved the termination of an eleven-week-old fetus when the mother developed a serious case of pulmonary hypertension.  Without the abortion, the woman would have died.  This certainly seems like an ethically correct decision on the part of the hospital, but the bishop apparently disagrees.  Olmsted explained that McBride was “automatically excommunicated,” and continued, saying, “An unborn child is not a disease…While medical professionals should certainly 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.”

Jacob M. Appel, a physician and bioethicist, wrote a great piece for the HuffPo about the situation, explaining that the hospital has conflicting directives about such cases.  One states that abortion is never permitted, even to save the life of the mother, illustrating the extent to which the mother can lose in the maternal-fetal conflict; the other, and the one that is usually followed because it corresponds with secular medical ethics, allows for small concessions when the mother’s life is in jeopardy.  But now, a dangerous precendent seems to have been established by Olmsted’s actions.  Olmsted himself is extremely conservative, even by Vatican standards, and has been a strong critic of Obama.  But Appel claims that this is not really about Olmsted – instead, the decision is reflective of a general trend in Catholic heathcare.  Competent adult women, Appel suggests, are no longer allowed to make their own decisions in Catholic hospitals, which comprise approximately 1/3 of medical services in the country.

I took a Christian ethics class last year, and read some of the fierce Catholic ethical arguments both for and against abortion.  Many of the ethicists came to the conclusion that although abortion itself was morally repugnant, that the Christian doctrine of love left space for moral support for abortion when it would save the mother’s life.  Others cite the principle of double effect, which allows doctor who are morally opposed to perform certain medical procedures that would save a woman’s life, knowing that the action will kill the fetus; because the direct intent is to save a life and to not terminate a pregnancy, the action is morally permissible. 

I don’t know enough about the medical details of the case to know whether this could be applied, but it certainly shows that Catholic ethicists are aware of the moral imperative to show as much care in saving the mother’s life, if not more.  But this seems to have been lost in the maternal-fetal conflict in modern healthcare, and it’s certainly a nuanced argument that Olmsted does not seem able to grasp. But I do agree with Appel, who points out that the Catholic Church can do what it wants – but that the imposition of its moral directives on citizens who may not want these ethics imposed on them should be resisted.  Because of cases like these, I have to agree with Appel – maybe the Catholic Church shouldn’t be providing healthcare at all.  Certainly, it seems to get caught up in political struggles (like the Catholic Church’s charities in DC, which were threatened by the passage of gay marriage) that jeopardize the well-being of the people whom the hospitals ostensibly serve.

Photo from Flickr.


Green Road A.
Eric Straatsma7 years ago

Hmmmm... I had a conversation with an ardent Catholic awhile back.. This position of not killing includes; not killing any eggs, so having surgery like a hysterectomy is against Gods will and is murder, and according to the Old Testament, murderers are to be stoned to death.. Same goes for killing sperm, as in spermicide during sex.. ANYONE guilt of killing sperm is treated the same as a murderer, and must be put to death, by stoning... So following this logic, any man getting a vasectomy, should be killed because he is not allowing sperm to do their thing...

Silly religious rules create lose lose situations... like overpopulation, and extinction of all life on the planet...

How many people can afford to have 20 kids in a lifetime these days? Is everyone OK with supporting these HUGE families on welfare and/or other public assistance, because very few families like this can make it on their own..

Can our planet put up with that obsolete religiosity anymore?

Lovely Devaya
Lovely Devaya7 years ago

Good on Sister Marguerite. It is high time the Catholic church woke up to the realities of modern living. We want to put the mother's safety before that of the unborn child in the same way we do not want 13 year olds to become mothers when they themselves are children! Unfortunately, it is the sign of times that children do these stupid things and get into trouble, but the Church should have the good sense to evolve with the times.

Daylight Chapon
C L Nancy7 years ago

Sister Marguerite,

When you know in your heart that you have worked for the highest good and that man's unjust, illogical, and thoughtless dictums are wrong on many levels, then you can carry on peacefully, knowing that right now, people are hearing of your couragous deed and discovering a deep wrong going on that society either was unaware of or preferred to ignore until this moment.
You will most likely have to move on to a better job where you are appreciated and can be a huge influence for strong moral and ethical processes.
God never gives us a task bigger than we can shoulder.

Bless you my dear.

Beverly C.
Beverly C7 years ago

God created us with a brain --which He expects us to use to think situations through. PEOPLE MUST USE COMMON SENSE! The "Sister" did the right thing.

Paul M.
Paul Meyer7 years ago

11 week old foetus. It would have died with the mother. 2 deaths instead of 1. At least the mother is still alive to have more kids, if she chooses. Would letting the mother die when the foetus would have died anyway when mom dies be more of a murder than just 1 death? Of course, some people would say that it's 'God's will' that they both die and God's
will shouldn't be interfered with. My response to this attitude would disqualify this posting from being posted as it would contain considerable strong language attacking this God's will



Inez Deborah Altar

Was this the wish of the pregnant woman , she should have been transferred to a different hospital, if this was not in accordance with the wishes of the pregnant woman, excommunication is too little, the excommunicated ex-sister should be prosecuted.

gerlinde p.
gerlinde p7 years ago

good choice sister margaret

Christine T.
Ciara T7 years ago

This is a perfect example of the typical foolery of such institutions, who throw common sense out the door just to uphold some law. The nun deserves so much credit for doing the right thing. Furthermore, the last time I checked, killing was a major offense in the Christian religion. People like the bishop need to realise that they are doing just that--killing others--when claiming that no abortions should be performed. Issues like this make it hard to see religion in a positive light.

Hugo Godinez
Hugo Godinez7 years ago

Once more, Good information.Thanks.

Gaby Micallef-trigona

I admire Sister Margaret. I am sure God does, too.
Fod bless her and her courage.