When religious dogma trumps rationalism, I usually find myself irritated. In this case, I am outraged. The story sounds like a hypothetical, but unlikely, situation that might be posed in a college or seminary class on ethics. In this case, however, it really happened.
Last November, a 27-year-old woman was admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. She was 11 weeks pregnant with her fifth child and was suffering from a severe heart condition. Doctors determined that if her pregnancy was carried to term, the woman’s (and fetus’) chances of dying were virtually 100%. They agreed that the only way to save the mother’s life was to perform an abortion.
Unfortunately, the woman was in a Catholic hospital, a place where performing abortions is regarded as impermissible. However, Directive 47 in the U.S. Catholic Church’s ethical guidelines for health care providers allows, in some circumstances, procedures that could kill the fetus to save the mother. Directive 47 clearly applied in this case. The woman was, in fact, so near death that doctors said moving her to a non-Catholic hospital in order to perform the abortion was ill-advised—that the mother would probably die en route.
Given the dire and unusual circumstances Sister Margaret McBride, a hospital administrator, approved the procedure under Directive 47. The fetus, of course, died but the woman survived to return home to her other four children.
Sister Margaret was promptly excommunicated by Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead. Bishop Olmstead was seconded in this action by the Rev. John Ehrich, medical ethics director for the Diocese of Phoenix. “She consented in the murder of an unborn child,” Ehrich said. “There are some situations where the mother may in fact die along with her child. But – and this is the Catholic perspective – you can’t do evil to bring about good. The end does not justify the means.”
Lisa Cahill, who teaches Catholic theology at Boston College said, “They were in quite a dilemma. There was no good way out of it. The official church position would mandate that the correct solution would be to let both the mother and the child die. I think in the practical situation that would be a very hard choice to make.” Like Olmstead and Ehrich, Ms. Cahill was unwilling to admit that abortion was really the only ethical option under the circumstances.
So, according to these ecclesiastical geniuses, it would be better for the mother and unborn baby to face certain death together than for doctors to save the life of the mother who had four other children in need of her nurturing.
Excommunication is the most serious action that could be taken against Sister Margaret since the Church is no longer allowed to burn heretics at the stake. I’m sure that in earlier days Bishop Olmstead and Rev. Erlich would have piled kindling around Sister Margaret and broiled her on the front lawn of the hospital as a warning to heretics everywhere.
I don’t want to single out the Catholics for this idiocy as it could have happened in any number of sects including Muslim, Pentecostal, Sikh, or Buddhist. It just happens that, this time, it was the Catholics’ turn to dramatize the insanity of some religious beliefs.
It is worth noting that neither the Quran nor the Bible has a thing to say on the subject of abortion, but most followers of both brands of Magic still condemn abortion as vile sin.
Even if you’re foolish enough to believe these books were handed down by a Supreme Being, the prohibitions against abortion are the rules of men, not of God.