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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Excommuniqué

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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Commentary Religion

It’s Pope Francis Who Should Apologize on Abortion

Erin Matson

With his latest comments, Pope Francis has built a shiny new smokescreen to distract from the grave and immoral harms caused by the Vatican's opposition to abortion and women's equality.

Pope Francis has a limited-time offer just for women who have abortions: Confess, and you won’t be excommunicated. Hurry! Only women who confess to a priest before November 20, 2016—during the “Year of Mercy”—will remain eligible to kneel and pray at the instruction of an all-male hierarchy that insists upon the subordination of women.

“I am well aware of the pressure that has led [women who have abortions] to this decision,” the Pope said. He suggested women “believe they have no other option.” Priests will have the “discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”

It seems the Pope Francis Sex TalkTM brand is expanding. With his latest comments, Pope Francis has built a shiny new smokescreen to distract from the grave and immoral harms caused by the Vatican’s opposition to abortion and women’s equality.

This has practically become a formula: Cool Pope says something that sounds like he cares about the huge swaths of people routinely discriminated against by the biggest patriarchy in the world for being women, gay, or unwilling to have children. But the doctrine doesn’t change, which means that nice comments don’t make for nice policy. Lobbyists representing the Catholic Church’s leadership continue to wreak great destruction around the world, whether messing with the Affordable Care Act at home or insisting on denying condoms to people in AIDS-ravaged areas abroad. And billions of public dollars are funneled into Catholic institutions that insist they have a right to discriminate on the taxpayer dole.

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His latest ploy on abortion is more of the same. Yes, people love Pope Francis and his tone is different and refreshing. Many may also find his pastoral approach comforting. But although we need to start somewhere, we also need to look at the bigger picture. The Pope’s comments are just stigma masquerading as understanding.

A woman who has had an abortion has done nothing wrong. She doesn’t need to apologize, and she certainly doesn’t need to apologize to a man representing an institution that denies her equality. (Remember when Pope Benedict compared the ordination of women to pedophilia? Pope Francis has enforced the same toxic nonsense about keeping women out of the priesthood; he just says things that make it sound nicer.) So, then, this isn’t actually about reassuring women who have had abortions. This is about continuing to single them out and shame them.

In the context of women’s lives, access to abortion is a matter of human dignity. And that dignity includes being trusted to make moral decisions—such as the one to end a pregnancy—for ourselves. Any outsider looking in who thinks he knows better is frankly sexist, drawing upon awful ideas that women are too stupid and wicked to be trusted with the management of our own lives. Preventing a woman’s access to abortion through advocating for restrictions upon reproductive care, as the Vatican does, is immoral.

A few weeks ago I helped to transport an abortion fund patient from a clinic to a hotel room. Prior to her procedure, she’d been growing frustrated with the several weeks it was taking to raise the money, find someone to watch her kids, and manage travel to another city where abortion is available after the first trimester. She’d started to wonder openly if she could “do something’” to force a miscarriage at home. This is how a great variety of piecemeal abortion restrictions—funding restrictions, TRAP laws, waiting periods, bans on specific procedures—work together to put woman in potential danger. (Or serve time in prison for trying to take matters into their own hands.)

Women who decide to have abortions will have abortions, and the question is merely if we want them to be safe. Should the woman I met have put herself at risk from an illegal abortion instead? Or found herself in handcuffs, like Kenlissia Jones? We don’t know: Unfortunately, Pope Francis hasn’t issued statements on the dire need to replace illegal abortion with safe abortion, or the criminalization of pregnancy outcomes; he just wants women to apologize to priests.

Pope Francis has it all wrong on abortion. The Catholic Church’s leaders owe women a profound apology.

It is thanks to the Vatican’s terrible rules against reproductive health care that a woman in California was nearly driven to travel 160 miles away from her family to give birth, because her local “pro-life” Catholic hospital initially refused to give her a tubal ligation after a planned cesarean section. It is in the name of “a Catholic country” that women like Savita Halappanavar have been forced to die after begging for life-saving abortions. Some advocates even argue that it is in anticipation of the Pope’s visit and in deference to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that President Obama has continued his bad legacy on reproductive rights by failing to take executive action that would extend abortion funding to rape victims in war zones.

In 2010, Sister Margaret McBride was excommunicated for authorizing a life-saving abortion at a Phoenix hospital. Is Pope Francis really telling her, and the woman whose life she helped to save, that they are the ones who committed evil and need to come back and apologize?

Maybe the better thing would be for Pope Francis to listen. That’s why my organization, Reproaction, has launched a #HeyPopeFrancis campaign that invites people to tell Pope Francis what they think he should do next. The responses so far have been varied and creative; many folks are concerned by the Vatican’s stance against abortion, contraception, and women’s ordination, and take exception to Pope’s statements about LGBTQ families. Still others are urging him to do even more on the environment and immigration. The bottom line is that this Pope is presenting himself as an agent of hope and changeand it’s now on all of us to share with him our hopes for meaningful change.

This is 2015. Women are human beings. They have dignity, and they must be respected. Women must be treated as equals, and there is no such thing as equality without easy access to abortion. If we are to have a just society that upholds its moral obligation to ensure no one is held back on the basis of gender, abortion must be accessible and funded for every person who needs it—no harassment, stigma, or “religious liberty” attached. And if you think equality for women makes sense so long as women abstain from sex or are willing to accept the “consequences” of pregnancy, then you don’t believe in equality for women. That’s wrong, and it’s that simple.

Rather than a call to confession about abortion, it would be far more redemptive for Pope Francis to call for a new dialogue within the Catholic Church about gender equality that would elevate the voices of a diverse group of women—including women who have had abortions, women who aren’t sorry about their abortions, and, oh yeah, women priests. That would represent major progress too.

News Law and Policy

Virginia Bishops Use Medicaid Stalemate to Call for New Abortion Funding Restriction

Erin Matson

The bishops urge repealing a section in the Code of Virginia that provides state funding for abortions in the Medicaid program in the event of a gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity or mental deficiency in a fetus.

It’s a perfect storm for opponents of reproductive rights in Virginia: Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has made Medicaid expansion his signature goal, house Republicans haven’t budged, and now the Virginia Catholic Conference says it supports expanding Medicaid—and that a new abortion funding restriction should be enacted.

In a statement issued Friday, four weeks into special session, the Diocese of Richmond Bishop Francis DiLorenzo and Diocese of Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde lent backhanded support to Medicaid expansion. “Our advocacy is informed by the Church’s teaching that, first, everyone has a right to life and second, that healthcare is a right,” they said.

The bishops urge repealing a section in the Code of Virginia that provides state funding for abortions in the Medicaid program in the event of a gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity or mental deficiency in a fetus.

Currently, Virginia Medicaid includes abortion coverage in four circumstances: life endangerment, rape, and incest is covered by federal Medicaid dollars; gross and totally incapacitating fetal impairment is covered by the commonwealth.

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In an interview with Rewire, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Executive Director Tarina Keene noted that the bishops’ statement argues for Medicaid expansion by expressing concern for the poor and vulnerable. Then, as she paraphrased it, it continued to say: “These pe ople, if they have a tragic pregnancy—screw them.” Keene said the commonwealth spent $13,058 to cover 14 abortions due to gross and totally incapacitating fetal impairment in 2013.

The bishops’ belated support for Medicaid expansion comes at a time when Virginia Democrats are grasping for negotiations. A special session began March 25 and Virginia Republicans have yet to relent on their opposition to Medicaid expansion. In response, hospitals have helped to lead the charge in lobbying them to soften their stance.

Joining this effort to lobby Republicans to expand Medicaid on behalf of the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association is Matt Cobb, a notable anti-choice official from the administration of former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R). In his capacity as a deputy health secretary, Cobb helped to lead the implementation and interpretation of an onerous clinic regulations law that has forced clinics to close. Cobb’s former boss Bill Hazel continues to serve as secretary of health under McAuliffe. These relationships, coupled with McAuliffe’s recent signing of a new conscience clause for genetic counselors into law, make the prospect of an abortion-related bargain not entirely out of the question.

As previously reported in Rewire, 400,000 low-income Virginians will gain access to health coverage if Medicaid is expanded. The senate budget includes a measure called “Marketplace Virginia” that would take advantage of the funding offered under the Affordable Care Act; the house budget does not. If a budget agreement is not reached by July 1 the government will shut down.