U.S. Bishops Back Phoenix Bishop in Nun Excommunication Abortion Case

The Doctrinal Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) published a document this week to clarify misunderstandings about the case of an abortion that took place in a Catholic hospital in Phoenix.

A media frenzy erupted in May after Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted announced the automatic excommunication of a nun who contributed to the decision to go ahead with the procedure. The nun in question, Sister Margaret McBride, had claimed that the abortion was necessary to save the life of the mother, who was suffering from pulmonary hypertension.

However, while various media gave the impression that pulmonary hypertension is a condition where abortion would be curative, Catholic medical experts pointed out that this is not the case.

In fact, neonatologist Dr. Paul Byrne explained to LifeSiteNews that with pulmonary hypertension, an abortion, although it may relieve some of the stress on the heart, may also make the situation worse due to the stress of the abortion procedure. Dr. Byrne also explained that the literature on the condition indicates that there have been successful interventions for pregnant women with pulmonary hypertension that have enabled both mother and child to survive.

In its statement, the USCCB Committee presents two scenarios that distinguish “between medical procedures that cause direct abortions,” which it says are “never morally permissible,” and those “that may indirectly result in the death of an unborn child,” which in certain extreme situations can be permissible.

The first scenario – that involving an illicit direct abortion – approximates the situation at the Phoenix Catholic hospital.

“In the first scenario, a pregnant woman is experiencing problems with one or more of her organs, apparently as a result of the added burden of pregnancy. The doctor recommends an abortion to protect the health of the woman.”  The abortion, according to the example, “is likely to improve the functioning of the organ or organs, but only in an indirect way, i.e., by lessening the overall demands placed upon the organ or organs, since the burden posed by the pregnancy will be removed.”

Although the bishops admit that in the scenario “the abortion is the means by which a reduced strain upon the organ or organs is achieved,” they nevertheless explain that this amounts to “direct abortion” and is “never permissible because a good end cannot justify an evil means.”

“The surgery directly targets the life of the unborn child. It is the surgical instrument in the hands of the doctor that causes the child’s death. The surgery does not directly address the health problem of the woman, for example, by repairing the organ that is malfunctioning,” they explain.

In the second scenario they present a case where a surgery to save the life of the mother can be legitimate even if it causes the death of an unborn child.

“In the second scenario, a pregnant woman develops cancer in her uterus. The doctor recommends surgery to remove the cancerous uterus as the only way to prevent the spread of the cancer. Removing the uterus will also lead to the death of the unborn child, who cannot survive at this point outside the uterus,” explains the document.

“The second scenario describes a situation in which an urgently-needed medical procedure indirectly and unintentionally (although foreseeably) results in the death of an unborn child. In this case the surgery directly addresses the health problem of the woman, i.e., the organ that is malfunctioning (the cancerous uterus). The woman’s health benefits directly from the surgery, because of the removal of the cancerous organ. The surgery does not directly target the life of the unborn child.”

While the Bishops Committee document does not discuss excommunication, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life.”

See the full USCCB document here.

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  • Joe DeVet

    This whole argument depends on the principle of “double effect” and the principle that one must never do evil in order to try to bring about a good effect. It seems to me that Bishop Olmsted’s actions followed these principles with integrity.

    It’s very important that Catholics be better-informed on these principles, else cases like this seem to show the Church as incomprehensibly obtuse and cruel.

  • john2

    Agree, Bishop Olmsted is completely correct. His reaction is on target.

    I want to point out a little ‘wrinkle’ in the process of excommunication. It was directly caused by the nun’s action. The bishop did not excommunicate her. She did not need to wait for the bishop to notice and make a declaration. She was excommunicated by force of her own action.

    Many Catholics don’t know how that works; so it is easy to think of “the Church as incomprehensibly obtuse and cruel.” Of course, non-Catholics can be excused for not knowing the ins and outs of the process.

    A mature, practicing nun has no such excuse. She threw herself out of communion. One hopes she will get herself back into a state of grace.

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