Abortion Rights Blog

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Catholic hospital stripped of religious status after performing life saving abortion

A Catholic bishop has sparked controversy after ruling that a hospital in Phoenix Arizona should lose its religious status for carrying out a life-saving abortion on a woman suffering from a serious heart condition.

In November 2009 an 11 week pregnant mother of four was rushed to St. Joseph’s hospital in Phoenix for an emergency abortion after being informed by doctors that the risk of death was close to 100% if she continued with the pregnancy.

She was suffering from pulmonary hypertension, right- sided heart failure and cardiogenic shock, conditions that the hospital believed would likely kill her. The hospital released a statement stating that “In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother’s life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy.”

Due to the imminent threat to the women’s life, Sister Margaret McBride, a Catholic nun who oversaw the hospital’s ethics committee consented to the abortion believing it to be in line with Directive 47 of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishop’s guidelines for Catholic healthcare

services which reads: “Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.”

Despite this, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted immediately excommunicated Sister McBride and removed her from the position of senior administrator. Bishop Olmsted also declared that the hospital was no longer able to consider itself “Catholic” and since then has pledged to pull his endorsement from the hospital unless it promises never to perform an emergency abortion to save a woman’s life ever again.

Commendably the hospital has not given in to the threats. St Joseph’s President Linda Hunt explains, “Morally, ethically, and legally we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save.”

However the Bishops actions send a chilling message to other Catholic hospitals.

These action also conflict with federal law. Catholic hospitals that deny life- saving abortions violate the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act. (EMTALA). ACLU lawyers explain that “The diocese cannot be permitted to dictate who lives and who dies in Catholic-owned hospitals.” The lawyers also wrote in a letter sent to the hospital on Dec 22nd that “no hospital – religious or otherwise – should be prohibited from saving women’s lives and from following federal law.”

Despite being stripped of its Catholic status, support for St Joseph’s hospital is strong amongst some Catholic organisations. The Catholic Health Association President Sister Carol Keehan released a statement saying that the hospital “carefully evaluated the patient’s situation and correctly applied the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services to it, saving the only life that was possible to save.”

The actions of St Joseph’s Hospital are to be commended however the question still remains over how other Catholic hospitals will react. There are over 600 Catholic hospitals in the US all governed by the laws that led to the excommunication of Sister McBride. For some American citizens the only hospitals in their community are Catholic, if these hospitals aren’t required to follow the provisions of the EMTALA then the lives of many women are put at risk during pregnancy.