Catholic Bishop Right to Push Back Against Culture of Death

Opinion   Gerard Nadal   Dec 28, 2010   |   12:25PM    Washington, DC

Bishop Thomas Olmsted, of the Phoenix, Arizona Diocese took the extraordinary step last week of removing Saint Joseph Hospital’s Catholic status.

The measure comes after last May’s confrontation between Sister Margaret McBride, the hospital’s administrator who gave permission for an 11-week pregnant woman with a severe case of pulmonary hypertension to have an abortion, and Bishop Olmsted who notified her in private that her actions were formal cooperation in the child’s death, and therefore incurred a latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication.

Much confusion swirls around this case, and needs to be cleared in the interest of defending the good name of a good bishop.

First, a recap of the initial controversy last May. Pulmonary hypertension is a gravely serious condition that is exacerbated by pregnancy. Testing done at Saint Joseph’s indicated a fairly advanced stage of the disease, and it was deemed that the 27 year-old mother of four would in all likelihood not make it to term with her pregnancy. Termination of the pregnancy was advocated as the means of saving the life of the mother. Thus, the ethical crossroads.

The moral guide for hospitals and healthcare institutions is spelled out in Ethical and Religious Directives of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (ERD’s).   Directives #45 and #47 both spell out the rules for dealing with a case such as this, and Bishop Olmsted, a Doctor of Canon Law, has made it clear that this case did not fall within the parameters of these directives and what is known as the Principle of Double Effect.

In essence the principle states that a lifesaving procedure that cannot be delayed, such as the removal of a cancerous uterus before the baby can be taken in a Cesarean section at viability (~25 weeks gestation), is permissible so long as the death of the baby is the indirect and unintended effect. The life-saving treatment and resolution of a disease with immediate lethal consequence if no treatment is rendered is the good effect. The unintended death of the baby is the bad, or second (double) effect.

Such circumstances are extremely rare, given how early a baby can be delivered before full term at 40 weeks. The mother’s life must be in immediate danger and the treatment of her disease, which would also result in the death of the baby, cannot be forestalled. The case at Saint Joseph’s did not rise to the level of Double-Effect, as the baby was the sole target of intervention.

While the assessment on the part of physicians was dire, no treatment of the disease was even attempted. There are several medications that can be employed to attempt a reduction in the severity of the disease, none of which appear to have been dispensed in this case. From that point on, the actions of the hospital and Sister McBride pointed toward more than an isolated and extreme case where the decision to abort could have been simply dismissed as one bad judgment call.

There are several hospitals within a three-mile radius of Saint Joseph’s, some mere blocks away, where this woman’s husband could have taken her for the recommended abortion. They were no more than ten minutes from any number of facilities that would have performed the abortion, if that was what the couple wanted. All reports of the incident indicate that at no point was the couple told that Saint Joseph’s does not target babies for death as a means of treating a disease. Again, no evidence has surfaced that the physicians attempted to treat her medically.

This is a critical distinction that separates Catholic healthcare from its secular counterparts. Many physicians resort to abortion as a defensive strategy to avoid potential litigation. Others have signed on to the eugenics agenda and aggressively promote abortion for Down Syndrome and other babies with trisomic disorders, spinal tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly, and a host of other imperfections.

Patients who seek Catholic healthcare do so because of the assurance that the facility and its clinicians adhere to the ERD’s. They do so because they seek the assurance that they will be told the truth and treated in accord with Catholic moral norms, and not railroaded down the disastrous path American medicine has decided to follow. The Phoenix case is an excellent example of what happens when rebels take charge and deceive their patients and the bishop.

At the time, I remarked to peers in medicine and to groups I was invited to address that there had to be much more to this story than meets the eye. No Catholic hospital faithful to the ERD’s ad the Magisterium, within a stone’s throw of several other hospitals, makes such a decision, especially without consulting the local bishop. I opined, and was pilloried for it, that Sister McBride was presiding over a shadow healthcare system that was active in promoting an agenda that ran counter to the mission of the Church. Nobody commits first-degree murder as a first crime. No Catholic hospital administrator, especially a professed religious, signs off on such an abortion for the first time in the manner in which Sister McBride conducted herself.

There was an arrogance, an independent and defiant air about it that pointed to something deeper and darker, something that would eventually come to light.

This past week, Bishop Olmsted shared with the world the extent to which there has been a shadow system operating for over a quarter of a century, performing abortions, sterilizations, and dispensing all manner of contraception.  Sister McBride, as it has now been revealed, is hardly the compassionate administrator who made a good-faith, though horrific decision.

In Part II, how Bishop Olmsted was lied to, lied about, what happens next in his courageous pushback against the rebellion within his healthcare system, and its implications nationally for Catholic healthcare.