The case of the bishop, an abortion and an excommunicated nun

The terrible story of the death of Savita Halappanavar has brought the always sensitive and polarizing issue of abortion to the forefront of the political debate in Ireland today. Mick has a short round up of how the case is being reported in the Irish media today.

The case brought to my mind an explosive row that broke out a couple of years ago at the hospital of my birth in Phoenix: Arizona’s largest hospital, St Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. The case centred on a termination, performed in November 2009 at the hospital. In May 2010, Mercy Sister Margaret Mary McBride was excommunicated by Bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmsted, after she had approved the decision to abort the child of a gravely ill woman. Sr. McBride, a member of the hospital’s ethics committee, had acted following medical advice stating that the prospect of the mother dying was close to 100% if she continued with the pregnancy:

The case concerned an unidentified woman in her 20s, who had a history of abnormally high blood pressure that was under control before she became pregnant. But doctors were concerned on learning of the pregnancy about the extra burden that would be placed on her heart, and they monitored her closely.

Tests showed that in the early stages of pregnancy her condition deteriorated rapidly and that before long her pulmonary hypertension – which can impair the working of the heart and lungs – had begun to seriously threaten her life. Doctors informed her that the risk of death was close to 100% if she continued with the pregnancy.

Consultations were then held with the patient, her family, her doctors and the hospital’s ethics team, and the decision to go ahead with an abortion was taken in order to save the mother’s life.

Bishop Olmsted objected to the determination reached by Sr McBride because the abortion was initiated to ease the mother’s medical health difficulties.

“The baby was healthy and there was no problems with the pregnancy; rather, the mother had a disease that needed to be treated. But instead of treating the disease, St Joseph’s decided that the healthy, 11-week-old baby should be directly killed. This is contrary to the teaching of the church.” (Bishop Olmsted)

From the Catholic Herald:

Officials at Catholic Healthcare West, a San Francisco-based health system, said in a letter to Bishop Olmsted: “If there had been a way to save the pregnancy and still prevent the death of the mother, we would have done it. We are convinced there was not.” But the bishop said that “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”. “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,” Bishop Olmsted said. “The unborn child’s life is just as sacred as the mother’s life, and neither life can be preferred over the other.”

In December 2010, Olmsted stripped St Joseph’s of its catholic affiliation, breaking a 115 year relationship with the hospital originally founded by The Sisters of Mercy in 1895.

Of course, there were two significant differences between the St Joseph’s case and that of Savita: Firstly- and most importantly-in the former, the life of the unknown mother to be was preserved and, secondly, there was never any doubt that the hospital authorities and doctors could act accordingly without fear of breaking the law of the land- if not of the Church.