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James Martin, S.J.December 23, 2010

Following up on Jim Keane's post below, don't miss Grant Gallicho's post over at Dotcommonweal on Bishop Olmsted's decision to strip St. Joseph's Hospital of its Catholic status.  It's a lot more nuanced than today's New York Times editorial, which referred approvingly to the hospital's "abortion care."  And in case you missed these two excellent pieces by Kevin Rourke. O.P., in America the first time around, they are well worth a review; the first, "Complications," talks about "a questionable excommunication"; the second, "From Intuition to Moral Principle," is a follow-up article that looks at the traditional moral principles surrounding the case.  By way of i.d., Kevin O’Rourke, O.P.,J.C.D., S.T.M., is a professor of bioethics at the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine and a consultant for many Catholic health care corporations. 

James Martin, SJ

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l mulligan
13 years 3 months ago
The bishop reasons that an innocent life cannot be taken to save another innocent life, which on its face is certainly reasonable, except when one takes into consideration that both lives will be lost if one is not taken.  That situation is analogous to a father being physically attacked by a child whom the father knows to be incapable of forming a rational, intentional judgment due to a mental disorder or otherwise.  Would the bishop not allow the father to defend himself, to the point of taking his son's life?  What if the father's reasonable belief in light of his knowledge of his child's condition was that unless he stopped the attack by putting the child's life at risk, because there was no other way to do so, the child would not only kill him, but his wife and four other children?  How far would the bishop push this principle of natural law?
Robert Killoren
13 years 3 months ago
Hi Fr. Jim,

I have not seen any news article or blog deal with the legal aspects of the case. It seems to me that under Arizona law the doctors could have been charged with criminally negligent homicide if they had the means but failed to perform an operation that would have saved the life of the mother. I don't think a plea under the conscience rule based on Bishop Olmsted's rationale would convince a judge or jury.

What do you think?

Deacon Bob
Eugene Pagano
13 years 3 months ago
Deacon Killoran:

You raise very good questions.  Professor Catherine Kaveney of Notre Dame Law School suggested some of the legal questions in an earlier blog post at Dotcommonweal


I commented on the malpractice and licensing issues in the first comment on that post.

As for the criminal law issues you raise, I think of the Supreme Court's comment in a case called Prince v. Massachusetts, in which the Court affirmed a child labor conviction of a Jehovah's Witness who used her child to distribute religious literature for contributions.  The majority opinion said, in effect, that parents are free to become martyrs themselves, but not to make martyrs of their underage children who cannot make that choice for themselves.  The bishop, doctors and hospital administrators were free to choose martyrdom for themselves, but not to impose that choice on the unfortunate mother.  Criminal convictions would have been likely — and very probably constitutional

P.S.:  I do not want to lead the comments on this blog on a tangent, but I always disclose, when posting a comment on a Roman Catholic blog, that I have left the Roman Catholic Church for the Episcopal Church.
David Cruz-Uribe
13 years 3 months ago
One question raised by those who disagree with Bishop Olmstead, and not really answered by the bishop or his supporters is this:  what would have been the morally correct course of action for the doctors to take?  Opponents, answering for the bishop, usually say "Let the woman and child both die."  If that is the case I would like to see some discussion from someone who believes that is the correct answer, as I (and most other Catholics I know), find this, on a gut level, a "bad" answer:  it somehow feels wrong. 
Eugene Pagano
13 years 3 months ago
Father Cruz-Uribe,

Father Rourke's second article linked in this post, From Intuition to Moral Principle, discusses physicians' responses on the ethics issue.

A blog post at Vox Nova has sharply challenged Bp. Olmsted's description of the medical facts:

David Nickol
13 years 3 months ago
I personally think it is regrettable that Bishop Olmsted has chosen to take such an unyielding stand in a case where experts disagree. I can't fault a Catholic bishop for taking a public stand that direct abortion is always wrong, but he is doing so in a case where there is no consensus that a direct abortion was performed. Consequently, he is not so much affirming the Church teaching against direct abortion as insisting on his right to define, for his diocese, what constitutes a direct abortion. He may be proved right with time, or he may be proved wrong, or it may be that experts continue to disagree indefinitely. But it seems to me the principle message he is sending right now - or at least the message the public believes they are hearing - is that it is better for a pregnant woman and her unborn child to both die than it is for the mother to be saved. 

If he felt he had to act against the hospital, it certainly seems to have been open to him to deemphasize the abortion case and make a stronger case that the hospital had strayed in a number of other areas. But he has chosen to take a firm stand on an issue about which experts disagree, and I think it is making him and the Church look bad. 
John Hayes
13 years 3 months ago
The explanation given by Bishop Olmstead in his statement of December 21 is:

"When I met with officials of the hospital to learn more of the details of what had occurred, it became clear that, in the decision to abort, the equal dignity of mother and her baby were not both upheld; but that the baby was directly killed, which is a clear violation of ERD #45. It also was clear that the exceptional cases, mentioned in ERD #47, were not met, that is, that there was not a cancerous uterus or other grave malady that might justify an indirect and unintended termination of the life of the baby to treat the grave illness. In this case, the baby was healthy and there were no problems with the pregnancy; rather, 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. This is contrary to the teaching of the Church (Cf. Evangelium Vitae, #62)."

The bishop's statement did not discuss the two issues brought up by the hospital and by Ms. Lysaught, who prepared the theological analysis presented to Bishop Olmstead. They are:

- The 11-week old baby could not survive if the mother died.

- There was a nearly 100% liklihood that the mother would die if the pregnancy was not terminated - and the baby would die along with her. 

In his teaching office, it would be very helpful if Bishop Olmstead would explain how those points affect the moral decisions that will have to be made when similar cases arise in the future.
13 years 3 months ago
Contradicting a local bishop responsible for determining compliance with Roman Catholic healthcare ethics, Catholic Health Association President and CEO Sister Carol Keehan is defending the actions of a large Phoenix hospital that saw its official religious status removed this week over what the Phoenix diocese determined to be ethical lapses.

Are we surpised?
13 years 3 months ago
Early on, the Phoenix diocese had on its website the statement that it "would not have been better for the mother to live knowing she had aborted her child."

That tells me  - that they think it IS better, for the woman and her baby to die together, even though the woman's life could have been saved by surgical intervention.   

John Hayes
13 years 3 months ago
According to the December 21 edition of the archdiocesan newspaper "The Catholic Sun", Bishop Olmstead has answered the two points raised by thehospital:

"Throughout the process, St. Joseph’s Hospital and its parent company, San Francisco-based Catholic Healthcare West, has maintained its intention was only to save the life of the mother, “the only life that could be saved,” according to the hospital.
The bishop responded to the claim in a May 14 statement, reiterating that “the direct killing of an unborn child is always immoral, no matter the circumstances, and it cannot be permitted in any institution that claims to be authentically Catholic.”


Apparently, none of the analyses presented since May have changed the Bishop's view, so the discussion will probably go on for some time. 
John Hayes
13 years 3 months ago
Just to finish up on my resarch on this, I did find the May Q & A published by the Diocese of Phoenix. This is one of the questions answered:

If the baby cannot survive outside the womb and the mother may die, isn’t it better to save at least one life?
First, we have to remember that a physician cannot be 100% sure that a mother would die if she continued the pregnancy.

Second, the mother’s life cannot be preferred over the child’s. Both lives are equal, both have an eternal soul and both are created by God. No one has the right to directly kill an innocent life, no matter what stage of their existence.

It is not better to save one life while murdering another. It is not better that the mother live the rest of her existence having had her child killed.


This seems to assume that the doctors had the option of saving either the mother or the child and preferred to save the mother. That doesn't agree with the statements by Lysaught and the hospital that the mother's life was the only one that could be saved.  

From this and other answers in the Q&A, it appears that the Bishop's teaching is that if a similar case should arise in the future the pregnancy should not be terminated and that the possible death of both the mother and the baby should be accepted.  

That is a hard teaching and i hope that it will lead to further discussions of this issue. 

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