By Peter J. Smith

PHOENIX, Arizona, May 17, 2010 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The Bishop of Phoenix has announced that a Catholic nun and administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix has automatically excommunicated herself by approving an abortion on a woman who was 11-weeks pregnant, and whose life hospital officials allege they were trying to save.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said the excommunications apply to all involved, and lambasted the hospital’s defense of their decision by comparing the ill woman’s unborn child to a disease that needed to be removed.

The Arizona Republic reports that in late 2009, Sister Margaret McBride, then vice president of mission integration at St. Joseph’s, joined the hospital’s ethics committee in determining that doctors and the hospital would be morally justified in performing a direct abortion in the first trimester, because they felt that the mother’s life was at risk.

The woman, whose identity is anonymous, was reportedly seriously ill with pulmonary hypertension.

The hospital has two directives relating to abortion, as reported by the Republic. The first says that physicians cannot perform direct abortions under any circumstances, including for such reasons as to save the life of the mother.

A second directive adds, however, that "operations, treatments and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted ... even if they will result in the death of the unborn child." This directive is based on the Catholic philosophical principle of double effect, which says that if the treatment sought addresses the direct causes of the woman’s health condition (such as radiation treatment for cancer), but never intends to kill the unborn child (even though that may happen as a secondary, but unintended, effect of the lifesaving treatment), then it is morally licit.

Hospital officials claimed that they were following the second directive by aborting the baby.

But Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said in a statement provided to the Republic that he was “gravely concerned by the fact that an abortion was performed several months ago in a Catholic hospital in this diocese,” and furthermore said he was appalled by the hospital’s twisted reasoning that justified the direct abortion by reducing the unborn child to a disease.

“An unborn child is not a disease. While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother's life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means," the prelate said.

Olmsted made clear that McBride and all Catholics who had “formal cooperation” in the woman’s abortion of her child, were automatically excommunicated from the Church.

"The Catholic Church will continue to defend life and proclaim the evil of abortion without compromise, and must act to correct even her own members if they fail in this duty," Olmsted declared.

McBride has since been demoted from her position, and transferred by the hospital to another area of administration.

Catholic Healthcare West, which oversees St. Joseph’s hospital, sent a letter to Olmsted Monday defending McBride’s and the hospital’s actions.

"If there had been a way to save the pregnancy and still prevent the death of the mother, we would have done it," the letter says. "We are convinced there was not."

However, Dr. Paul A. Byrne, Director of Neonatology and Pediatrics at St. Charles Mercy Hospital in Toledo, Ohio, disputes the claim that an abortion is ever a procedure necessary to save the life of the mother, or carries less risk than birth.

In an interview with LifeSiteNews, Dr. Byrne said, “I don’t know of any [situation where abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother].

“I know that a lot of people talk about these things, but I don’t know of any. The principle always is preserve and protect the life of the mother and the baby.”

Byrne has the distinction of being a pioneer in the field of neonatology, beginning his work in the field in 1963 and becoming a board-certified neonatologist in 1975. He invented one of the first oxygen masks for babies, an incubator monitor, and a blood-pressure tester for premature babies, which he and a colleague adapted from the finger blood pressure checkers used for astronauts.

Byrne emphasized that he was not commentating on what the woman’s particular treatment should have been under the circumstances, given that she is not his patient.

“But given just pulmonary hypertension, the answer is no” to abortion, said Byrne.

Byrne emphasized that the unborn child at 11 weeks gestation would have a negligible impact on the woman’s cardiovascular system. He said that pregnancy in the first and second trimesters would not expose a woman with even severe pulmonary hypertension – which puts stress on the heart and the lungs – to any serious danger.

A pregnant mother’s cardiovascular system does have “major increases,” but they only happen “in the last three months of pregnancy,” Byrne explained.

The point of fetal viability is estimated at anywhere between 21 - 24 weeks, at which point he speculated the baby could have been artificially be delivered and had a good shot at surviving. In the meantime the mother’s pulmonary hypertension could be treated, even by such simple things as eliminating salt from her diet, exercising, or losing weight.

“It’s not going to be any extra stress on the mother that she can’t stand,” said Byrne. “Eventually you get to where the baby gets big enough that the baby can live outside the uterus and you don’t have to do an abortion.”

“I am only aware of good things happening by doing that. I am not aware of anything bad happening to the mother because the baby was allowed to live.”

“The only reason to kill the baby at 11 weeks is because it is smaller,” which makes the abortion easier to perform, he said, not because the mother’s life is in immediate danger.

“I’ve done this work just about as long as neonatology has existed,” said Byrne. “The key is we must protect and preserve life, and we have to do that from conception to the natural end.”


To contact Catholic Healthcare West:

Catholic Healthcare West
185 Berry Street, Suite 300
San Francisco, CA 94107

Phone: (415) 438-5500

Click here to contact CHW electronically.

To contact Bishop Thomas Olmsted:

Diocese of Phoenix
400 East Monroe Street
Phoenix, Arizona 85004-2336
Phone: 602-354-2000
Fax: 602-354-2427
Email: Contact-Us@diocesephoenix.org