Weekly Pulse: Nun Excommunicated for Approving Lifesaving Abortion

Lindsay E. Beyerstein

A nun in Arizona is excommunicated for approving a life-saving abortion, shedding light on a national basttle over access to reproductive health care in Catholic hospitals.

This article was originally published by The Media Consortium, of which Rewire is a member.

A nun in Phoenix, Arizona was excommunicated for approving a lifesaving abortion. Sister Margaret McBride‘s career in the Catholic church came to an abrupt end after she approved an therapeutic abortion at St. Joseph’s Hospital Medical Center, Robin Marty of Rewire reports.

The woman was 11 weeks’ pregnant when she developed a life threatening case of pulmonary hypertension according to Ms. Magazine. Sr. McBride approved the procedure after consulting with the patient, her family, and the hospital’s ethics committee, but the local bishop excommunicated her anyway.

Sr. McBride’s excommunication is the latest salvo in a national battle over access to reproductive health care in Catholic hospitals. Between a fifth and a third of all hospital beds in the United States are administered by the Catholic Church. Catholic hospitals provide health care services to the community at large and often receive public funding—but they are not required to offer treatments that conflict with their religious teachings.

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Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix wrote in a statement, “”If a Catholic formally cooperates in the procurement of an abortion, they are automatically excommunicated by that action.” Note that the Catholic Church doesn’t automatically excommunicate priests who sexually abuse children.

“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. The unborn child’s life is just as sacred as the mother’s life, and neither life can be preferred over the other,” the bishop wrote.

This wasn’t even a choice between the life of the mother and the life of the fetus. An 11-week-old fetus is not viable. If the mother dies, the fetus dies with her. Evidently Bishop Olmestead would rather have seen the woman and the fetus die instead of saving the woman. How pro life.

Radical, even by Catholic standards

Amelia Thomson DeVeaux notes at Care2 that the bishop’s position is radical even by Catholic standards:

[N]ow, a dangerous precendent seems to have been established by Olmsted’s actions. Olmsted himself is extremely conservative, even by Vatican standards, and has been a strong critic of Obama. But [bioethicist Jacob Appel] claims that this is not really about Olmsted – instead, the decision is reflective of a general trend in Catholic heathcare. Competent adult women, Appel suggests, are no longer allowed to make their own decisions in Catholic hospitals, which comprise approximately 1/3 of medical services in the country.

Liliana Loofbourow passionately rebukes the bishop on the Ms. Magazine blog, “Catholics like Sister Margaret McBride are a ray of hope in the darkness. However, she is not a Catholic anymore. And as of this writing, neither am I.”

During the health care reform debate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops flexed its political muscle to ensure maximally restrictive rules on abortion coverage for everyone. Reproductive rights groups fear that access to basic reproductive health care, and even lifesaving medical treatment in Catholic hospitals will be an ongoing point of contention.

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