Catholic Bishop Castigates and Threatens Hospital that Saved Woman’s Life

Amie Newman

In November 2009, a young mother of four was given a life saving, emergency abortion from doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. Bishop Thomas Olmstead of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix called it "immoral" and is now threatening the hospital president in an effort to make sure they never save a pregnant woman's life again.

In November 2009, a young mother of four children was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona for an emergency abortion. The doctors who cared for her at the Catholic hospital determined that without the emergency abortion, she likely would have died. From a letter sent by the ACLU in July of 2010 about the case:

The woman was eleven weeks pregnant and suffered from life-threatening pulmonary hypertension, which is high blood pressure in the arteries that supply blood to the lungs. As her condition worsened, the hospital diagnosed her with right-sided heart failure and cardiogenic shock, and determined that she would almost certainly die unless she terminated the pregnancy.

I’m sure her husband and children are forever grateful to the surgeons and physicians who saved the life of this woman, a wife and mother.

Not so the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, however.

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After the life-saving procedure was performed Bishop Thomas Olmstead of the Diocese demoted Sister Mary McBride who acted as the liasion between the hospital Ethics Committee and the physicians. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops agreed with the decision.

Now, in a letter revealed in the media today, Bishop Olmstead is not only castigating Catholic Healthcare West, the group that runs St. Joseph’s Hospital, for saving her life but threatening them in order to force them to promise that doctors will never save a woman’s life if it requires an emergency abortion ever again.

In a letter (PDF) to Lloyd H. Dean, President of Catholic Healthcare West, Bishop Olmstead calls the life-saving procedure “morally wrong” even though he doesn’t deny that it almost certainly saved her life. The ACLU notes that he then “threatens to remove his endorsement of the hospital unless CHW “acknowledge[s] in writing that the medical procedure that resulted in the abortion at St. Josephs’ Hospital was a violation” of the policy that governs all Catholic hospitals and “will never occur again at St. Joseph’s Hospital.”

From the letter it seems as if Dean and CHW have stuck to their position that not only were their actions moral and just, in this circumstance, but that they certainly would not promise not to save a woman’s life or health if presented with a similar case in the future. In fact, they presented both religious and moral ethicists’ opinions as support for the hospital’s actions.

On what planet does Bishop Omstead live that saving the life of a mother of four is unacceptable on a moral or religious scale?

The ACLU claims that Olmstead’s insistence that the hospital must never provide an emergency abortion procedure is actually a violation of federal law. Alexi Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney for the ACLU, said in a statement this week:

“Religiously affiliated hospitals are not exempt from federal laws that protect a patient’s right to receive emergency care, and cannot invoke their religious status to jeopardize the health and lives of pregnant women. Women should never have to be afraid that they will be denied life-saving medical care when they enter a hospital.”

The federal law, in specific, to which Kolbi Molinas refers is the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act. The law protects patients’ rights to receive emergency reproductive health care and Catholic hospitals cannot opt out. The law is necessary given that Catholic hospitals operate 15 percent of all hospital beds, according to the ACLU, and may likely provide the only or closest emergency care in a region. In a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in July 2010, the ACLU requests an investigation into violations of the federal law – not only as a result of the incident at St. Joseph’s but after numerous reports of horrendous scenarios:

We know that what happened at St. Joseph’s was not an isolated incident. Catholic-owned hospitals across the country have refused to provide emergency abortions, as documented in a recent article in the American Journal of Public Health. For example, a doctor in the Northeast decided to leave a Catholic-owned hospital after he was forced by the hospital’s ethics committee to risk a pregnant patient’s life. The woman was in the process of miscarrying at 19 weeks of pregnancy. She was dying: her temperature was 106 degrees, she had disseminated intravascular coagulopathy, which is a life-threatening condition that prevents a person’s blood from clotting normally and causes excessive bleeding. This patient was bleeding so badly that the sclera, the whites of her eyes, were red, filled with blood. Despite the fact that there was no chance the fetus could survive, the ethics committee told the doctor that he could not perform the abortion the woman needed to save her life until the fetus’s heartbeat stopped. After the delay, the patient was in the Intensive Care Unit for 10 days, and developed pulmonary disease, resulting in lifetime oxygen dependency.

Still, Bishop Olmstead and the Roman Catholic Diocese are steadfast in their insistence that physicians and hospital administrators acted immorally when they saved the life of a pregnant mother of four children and are determined to ensure that pregnant women are not safe in the hands of Catholic hospitals across the country.

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