The Case of Sister Margaret McBride

Just posted to our Web site, an assessment of the controversial excommunication of Sister Margaret Mary McBride from the respected Dominican ethicist Kevin O'Rourke. As both a Catholic ethicist and an expert on Canon Law, Father O'Rourke offers a unique perspective:

Yet questions remain. Did the bishop and his advisors clearly establish that a direct abortion had been performed? Did he or his advisors know the medical facts of the case or did they know about the pertinent canons of the church for penal sanctions? Many people acquiring canon law degrees are well trained in the sections of the code concerning marriage law, but seldom study in depth Section VII, Of Sanctions in the Church. I have been a canon lawyer for over 50 years and have to refresh myself on these canons whenever they are applicable.

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Even if a direct abortion had been performed, the declaration that an automatic excommunication had been incurred is questionable. Canon 1321 states that the violation of the canon must be deliberate. Commentaries on this canon stress that the people concerned must knowingly and willingly violate the canon. Did the people involved in the Phoenix case, mother, ethics committee members, or medical personnel, act deliberately? Did they set out knowingly and willingly to violate Canon 1398? Or was their primary intention to save the woman’s life? Moreover, if a penalty is truly incurred, several of the following canons recommend exemption from or mitigation of the penalty depending upon the psychological state of the persons involved. And as Pope John Paul II ’s encyclical “The Gospel of Life” makes clear, few people “willingly and knowingly” procure an abortion (p.18). Finally, if a penalty has been imposed or declared, the person in question should be informed that an appeal is possible and that the penalty is automatically suspended while it is under appeal (c. 1353).

Read the whole article here.

Tim Reidy

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Vince Killoran
7 years 5 months ago
From what we know of Sister McBride it sounds like she doesn't "walk away" from anything difficult.
Jim McCrea
7 years 5 months ago
For those who may have missed this: 
 
http://www.americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?blog_id=2&entry_id=3013
 
David Nickol
7 years 6 months ago
beth cioffoletti:
 
You say: "It bothers me that the mother of the child who was aborted seems to have no say in the matter.  She is never even mentioned in the many articles I've read about this excommunication."
 
You might want to read the article by Father Kevin O'Rourke that the author of this blog post, Tim Reidy, quotes from. The link to the full article is given after the quote. There is information about the mother in Father O'Rourke's article.
 
You say: "To say that one of these lives is patholigical, while the other is not, seems contrived and weird."
 
Fortunately, no one said one said the life of the infant or the mother was "pathological." What was deemed to be the problem was the placenta. The article states: "The placenta produces the hormones necessary to increase the blood volume in pregnant women; in this case, the additional volume put an intolerable strain on the woman’s already weak heart. Since the placenta is located in the uterus, perhaps it would have been more accurate for the ethics committee to designate that organ as pathological and thus compel its removal." 
 
The reasoning seems to be quite similar to me as the reasoning that allows the removal of the fallopian tube in an ectopic pregnancy and the removal of the cancerous uterus of a pregnant woman, both of which mean certain death to the infant and both of which are permitted by Catholic medical ethics. 
 
 
 
 
7 years 6 months ago
''walked away saying this is a hard teaching''
Helena Loflin
7 years 6 months ago
Lucky for Sister Margaret Mary McBride (and the rest of us for that matter), ultimately only God will be her Judge, not her fellow sinners.
Brian Killian
7 years 6 months ago
How could the placenta, the uterus, the baby, or the pregnancy in general, be identified as pathological when all these things were working exactly as they should have been. It is not pathological for the placenta to increase blood volume to the heart; isn't this exactly what it's supposed to do? If an organ must be identified as pathological, it should of been the heart which was admitted to be "already weakened" and hence unable to handle the increased blood volume.
 
The pregnancy was normal, it was merely complicating a condition the mother already had with her heart. For this reason, I don't think this case can be said to be analogous to preeclampsia or an ectopic pregnancy where the death of the fetus is indirect because the actions taken had an intelligibility that came from the abnormality of the pregnancy and hence could serve as the object of the actions which led to the death of the unborn child. 
 
I think that whether or not the abortion in this case was direct depends on the procedure that was carried out. Ending the pregnancy to save the mother I think was justified, but it makes a big difference if this was done by directly attacking the unborn child through conventional abortion methods, or if the baby was taken from the womb through c-section or induced birth and subsequently died because we don't know how to care for such radically premature babies. The latter would have preserved the distinction between killing and letting die and prevented the people involved from crossing the line from 'allowing to die' to 'killing'. 
 
The difference between the two is the difference between respecting both the life of the mother and the life of the child, and the contradictory taking of one life in order to save another life. But whether it was direct or not, I don't doubt that the sister believed it was indirect in this case.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 6 months ago
In the earliest days and months of a pregnancy, an unborn child cannot live outside of the mother's womb.  It is not viable life, and is totally dependent upon the body and health of the mother.
 
To say that one of these lives is patholigical, while the other is not, seems contrived and weird.   The mother and child are joined in such a way that, in my mind, is unique and mysterious.  Almost like Siamese twins - (and what does the Church say about the surgeries where one twin is sacrificed so that the other may live?  Better that both die?)
 
It bothers me that the mother of the child who was aborted seems to have no say in the matter.  She is never even mentioned in the many articles I've read about this excommunication.  We don't even know if she was married or who is taking care of her other children.
James Lindsay
7 years 6 months ago
While one may voluntarily take heroic risks to carry a pregnancy to term, it must not be made mandatory just because one has care in a Catholic hospital. Imposed martyrdom is simply persecution and murder.

This incident demonstrates a rather tragic pathology in the Church - a moral cowardice that believes God would somehow damn someone for saving the life of a mother. It points to a belief system that things ethics is somehow for God's benefit and not for human benefit. Such a belief permeates our doctrines in a way that belies the statement that they are based on natural law. This is especially the case where sexuality is discussed and it leads to quite uncharitable teachings which result in, rather then ameliorate, human misery.

Most importantly, one can either be a good shephard or govern the diocese by press release. It seems that the latter has occurred in this case. That is simply pandering to one's organizational allies in the pro-life coalition. Shameful.
David Nickol
7 years 6 months ago
Brian Killian says: ''It is not pathological for the placenta to increase blood volume to the heart; isn't this exactly what it's supposed to do?''
 
When an organ, in doing exactly what it is supposed to do, threatens to kill a person unless it is stopped, there is a medical problem! 
 
''Natural'' and ''pathological'' are in many ways human constructs.  Severe pain, for example, can be the result of the body doing exactly what it is supposed to do. Congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP) is a very serious disorder. Pain is good! Yet there is no argument that I have ever heard for refusing anesthesia for, say, open-heart surgery on the grounds that it is perfectly normal to feel pain when being opened up by scalpels.
 
Childbirth is as natural a phenomenon as one can imagine, and yet we do not refuse medical insurance payments to mothers who go to the hospital to have their babies delivered.
 
Some generations ago, left-handedness was was considered ''pathological.'' My aunt (who would be nearing 100 were she alive today) was naturally left-handed, but she was not permitted by her teachers to use her left hand when learning to write.
 
From the viewpoint of the HIV virus, AIDS is perfectly natural. 
 
Sickle-cells (as in sickle-cell anemia) are an advantageous adaptation in areas where there is malaria. According to Wikipedia: ''The malaria parasite has a complex life cycle and spends part of it in red blood cells. In a carrier, the presence of the malaria parasite causes the red blood cells with defective haemoglobin to rupture prematurely, making the plasmodium unable to reproduce. Further, the polymerization of Hb affects the ability of the parasite to digest Hb in the first place. Therefore, in areas where malaria is a problem, people's chances of survival actually increase if they carry sickle-cell trait (selection for the heterozygote).''
 
So it would be preposterous for medical science to say, ''This is causing you to suffer terribly (or this will cause certain death), but it is perfectly natural, so we're just going to let nature take its course.'' A ''perfectly natural'' physiological reaction that will cause immanent death is a medical emergency. 

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