(UPDATED) Life-Saving Hospital May No Longer Consider Itself Catholic

Amie Newman

Bishop Thomas Olmstead offically revokes St. Joseph's Hospital of its status as a Catholic hospital because it dared to save the life of a young mother of four - with an emergency abortion.

Updated: 12/22/10, 5:25pm EST

It’s being characterized as both good news and sad news.

Bishop Thomas Olmstead of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix has formally stripped St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona of its status as an official Catholic hospital after Lloyd H. Dean, President of Catholic Healthcare West, the entity that runs St. Joseph’s Hospital, refused to submit to Olmstead’s demands that the hospital never again perform a life saving procedure on a woman–if said procedure is an abortion.

St. Joseph’s could not, as the Dude would say, “abide.” In a statement released today, Bishop Olmstead explained his reasoning,

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“In the decision to abort, the equal dignity of mother and her baby were not both upheld,” Olmsted said at a news conference announcing the decision. “The mother had a disease that needed to be treated. But instead of treating the disease, St. Joseph’s medical staff and ethics committee decided that the healthy, 11-week-old baby should be directly killed.”

The hospital did, in fact, treat the mother’s “disease” because if they hadn’t not only would she have died but the fetus would have as well. Olmstead’s insistence on calling the fetus, in utero, an “11 week old baby” is not only disrespectful of this woman’s life and health, it’s medically incorrect and absolutely meant to condescend to a woman whose life was saved and whose chidren still have a living mother.

According to a statement from Linda Hunt, president of St. Joseph’s, the hospital does all they can to prioritize the lives of both the fetus and the mother but, “Morally, ethically, and legally we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save.”

Olmstead’s decision was made after physicians and surgeons, in collaboration with Roman Catholic nun, Sister Mary McBride, saved the life of a young mother of four children by performing an emergency abortion in 2009. McBride was demoted by Bishop Olmstead for her role in the woman’s treatment.

The wife and mother at the center of the story was rushed to the hospital with pulmonary hypertension which soon developed into life-threatening heart failure. The decision to perform an abortion on the woman who was 11 weeks pregnant came after the Catholic hospital’s Ethics Committee consulted with Sister Mary McBride.

The young mother lived to see another day and is home with her husband and four children living her life.

This did not sit will with Bishop Olmstead who not only castigated St. Joseph’s in a letter to Dean for performing the emergency procedure but demanded a promise, in the letter, that the hospital would never again save the life of a woman under its care–if it meant performing an abortion.

When Dean did not respond as Olmstead demanded, the Bishop declared that St. Joseph’s may no longer consider itself a Catholic hospital. To be clear, this is more of an “official” declaration than, of course, an actual state of affairs. For the many Catholics in this country who live their lives in faith but who do not follow every tenet of Catholicism as interpreted by the leaders of the religion, they may still consider what physicians did within the four walls of St. Joseph’s a moral, religious act. There are, after all, millions of Catholics who use birth control and many who access legal abortion care. However, as far as the implications of this decision go, the hospital may no longer do things like conduct mass; as well, the “Blessed Sacraments” will be removed from hospital chapels.

Catholics for Choice President, Jon O’Brien, was saddened to hear of the decision today,

“The decision by Bishop Thomas Olmsted to declare that St. Joseph’s Hospital may no longer be considered Catholic is a sad one.

“It’s sad that Bishop Olmsted is so intransigent that he cannot accept that the people seeking medical care at the hospital may need access to services that he finds unacceptable, even though he, and we, know that Catholics use contraception and access abortion services at rates similar to the population as a whole.

“It’s sad that people seeking care and working at the hospital will no longer be able to hear mass in the chapel at St. Joseph’s.  

“It’s sad for the people of Phoenix that the local bishop has created such a spectacle over this issue, from the moment he sought to excommunicate Sister Margaret McBride for sanctioning a life-saving operation to the threats issued to St. Joseph’s down to today’s punishment – announced via press release.

“All of the people who work at the hospital know that their actions are driven by their consciences, from the doctors, nurses and other medical personnel right through to the administration and support staff. They all acted in good conscience. Can Bishop Olmsted say the same thing?” 

To those who have responded, however, that it is perfectly acceptable for a Catholic hospital to refuse to provide life-saving treatment to patients if said treatment conflicts with religious tenets, the ACLU says no, not at all. What Bishop Olmstead demanded from St. Joseph’s Hospital, and perhaps why the President of Catholic Healthcare West has denied said demand, is against the law according to the ACLU.

The ACLU alleges that religious hospitals’ refusals to perform life-saving abortions is in violation of the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) as well as the Conditions of Participation of Medicare and Medicaid (COP). They have asked the government to investigate these violations given that women’s health and lives are on the line. In a statement earlier this year, Brigitte Amiri, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU said::

“The lives and health of pregnant women seeking medical care should be of paramount importance,” said Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “No woman should have to worry that she will not receive the care she needs based on the affiliation of the nearest hospital.”

Today, the ACLU is expressing satisfaction with St. Joseph’s decision to continue providing life-saving care to women. However the group plans to continue to alert the government of incidents where religiously affiliated hospitals may be breaking the law:

“St. Joseph’s made the right decision to stand up for the rights and health of women in need of life-saving care,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Reproductive Freedom Project. “A hospital’s first responsibility must be the needs of its patients. Any hospital that fails to provide emergency abortion care violates federal law. No woman should be afraid that she will be denied the care she needs when she goes to a hospital.”

The ACLU has sent another letter to the Obama administration asking them to respond to the first lettter they sent, in July 2010, requesting an investigation into potential federal law violations by religiously affiliated hospitals. The government has not responded to either letter and, given this most recent action by Bishop Olmstead as well as the decision by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to reaffirm, writes the ACLU, “that even life-saving abortions cannot be performed in Catholic hospitals across the country” it’s more important than ever to keep the issue in our sightline.

The ACLU is also asking those who believe that all hospitals are obligated to save the lives of all patients – even dying pregnant women who need an abortion – to sign a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The letter asks Sebelius to ensure that religiously affiliated hospitals follow the law and provide emergency reproductive health care if it means saving a woman’s life. It’s difficult to understand how women need a petition, in this day and age, to ask our government to ensure that hospitals save our lives if necessary but such is the case.

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