Some Ethicists Fault Phoenix Bishop in Abortion Case

From NCR:

When Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix declared that Mercy Sr. Margaret McBride had committed a violation of church law deserving of excommunication, he did so with a swiftness and certainty that left no possibility for doubt or nuance. Since that declaration was released in May, however, the bishop’s action has come in for criticism from a wide range of Catholic experts who question its proportionality and its precipitous nature. Some see it as disproportionally harsh; others as inconsistent within the framework of the application of wider Catholic law.

In the widely publicized case, the bishop announced that McBride had been excommunicated for assenting to the abortion of an 11-week-old fetus in order to save the life of a pregnant woman, a 27-year-old mother of four suffering from pulmonary hypertension. The woman was so gravely ill that doctors told her she would die if the pregnancy were not terminated.


McBride, vice president of mission integration at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, where theprocedure occurred, was a member of the hospital ethics committee that approved termination of the pregnancy.

The surgery took place in late 2009, but Olmsted did not learn of it until recently. In a statement announcing his decision, Olmsted said McBride was excommunicated because of her position of authority at the hospital and because she “gave her consent that the abortion was morally good and allowable under church teaching.” Olmsted further declared as excommunicated anyone “who gave their consent, encouraged the abortion” or “who participated in the action; including doctors and nurses.”

While theologians and canonists dispute whether excommunications can be issued so broadly and unequivocally without a more detailed process, the primary objections deal with issues at the heart of the case.

Both the recent reactions, as well as writings, of a range of theologians and canonists whose work spans a good portion of the liberal-to-conservative spectrum, suggests that the approach of Olmsted and his chief ethicist, Fr. John Ehrich, while defensible under the most rigid reading of canon law, is outside of the mainstream of scholarship and thinking on the matter.

These experts faulted Olmsted’s action for several reasons:

  • It does not, for instance, take into account such factors as the intent of those involved, a consideration regularly applied to other complex moral problems.
  • It does not ask if the death of the fetus -- assured whether the decision was to do nothing to save the life of the mother or to remove the fetus from the mother’s womb -- should even enter into “the moral framework” in this instance.
  • Its application in this case is inconsistent with the approach the church takes to other grave public sins, such as support of the death penalty, war, or clergy accused of sexual abuse, including rape, of children.
  • In a pastoral sense, the sanction was unnecessarily heavy-handed, given the agonizing circumstances involved.

Read the rest of the piece, by Tom Roberts at NCR, here.

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James Lindsay
8 years 7 months ago
Thomas Doyle also had an excellent piece last week on this which discussed the process issues more deeply at Apparently, the Bishop was hasty in his statements, not giving Sister Margaret her due process rights.
Peter Lakeonovich
8 years 7 months ago
Of course the article continually refers to child, i.e., the human being, inside the mother's womb as merely a "fetus." The term fetus is technically correct, although admittedly slightly de-humanizing. In contrast, the non-victim directly, the mother, is referred to throughout as "the woman," "the mother." These terms are also correct, and also endearing. "The woman" and "the mother" in contrast to just "the fetus." Am I being conspiratorial or paranoid or have these words been carefully chosen by an author and organization promoting less than a culture of life?

The irony in such words is striking. The article uses the term "the woman," but we know who THE WOMAN really is. The article uses the term "the mother," but we know who OUR MOTHER really is. And THE WOMAN who is OUR MOTHER would never have aborted her fetus, her CHILD, the CHILD - - - even though she faced certain death for a pregnancy outside of marriage, even though she had no where to give birth to the CHILD but in a stable. When THE WOMAN who is OUR MOTHER said yes to the angel at the Anunciation, the WORD was not made just "fetus." No, the WORD was made FLESH, the WORD was made human.

Of course that is clearly lost in all of this.
Gregory Popcak
8 years 7 months ago
The general consensus at  Mirror of Justice (a group blog sponsored by several Catholic legal scholars across the political spectrum) was that the procedure was indeed unethical and that Olmstead acted properly.  Frankly, I was rather surprised by the agreement there.
It really isn't just socon troglodytes who think that sister acted inappropriately.  The whole situation is a terrible tragedy and people of good will should resist using this either to attempt to score points against the bishop (or the institutional church) or attack sister.
John Hess
8 years 7 months ago
It seems that God's angel has been expelled by God's lawyer.
Vince Killoran
8 years 7 months ago
I couldn't find the "general consensus" to which Greg refers on the Mirror of Justice website. I found one contributor who began his entry with the disclaimer, "I don't have a good grasp of the facts" and another who had some considerable doubts about the bishop's action. Please send the links if you have them.
In any case, I wasn't familiar with this website so I'm going to explore it a bit more.  I note that the expertise of many of the contributors is pretty diverse so they couldn't be considered "experts" on the McBride case.
8 years 7 months ago
Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-1962)

Gianna Beretta was born in Magenta (Milan) October 4, 1922. Already as a youth she willingly accepted the gift of faith and the clearly Christian education that she received from her excellent parents. As a result, she experienced life as a marvellous gift from God, had a strong faith in Providence and was convinced of the necessity and effectiveness of prayer.

She diligently dedicated herself to studies during the years of her secondary and university education, while, at the same time, applying her faith through generous apostolic service among the youth of Catholic Action and charitable work among the elderly and needy as a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. After earning degrees in Medicine and Surgery from the University of Pavia in 1949, she opened a medical clinic in Mesero (near Magenta) in 1950. She specialized in Pediatrics at the University of Milan in 1952 and there after gave special attention to mothers, babies, the elderly and poor.

While working in the field of medicine-which she considered a “mission” and practiced as such-she increased her generous service to Catholic Action, especially among the “very young” and, at the same time, expressed her joie de vivre and love of creation through skiing and mountaineering. Through her prayers and those of others, she reflected upon her vocation, which she also considered a gift from God. Having chosen the vocation of marriage, she embraced it with complete enthusiasm and wholly dedicated herself “to forming a truly Christian family”.

She became engaged to Pietro Molla and was radiant with joy and happiness during the time of their engagement, for which she thanked and praised the Lord. They were married on September 24, 1955, in the Basilica of St. Martin in Magenta, and she became a happy wife. In November 1956, to her great joy, she became the mother of Pierluigi, in December 1957 of Mariolina; in July 1959 of Laura. With simplicity and equilibrium she harmonized the demands of mother, wife, doctor and her passion for life.

In September 1961 towards the end of the second month of pregnancy, she was touched by suffering and the mystery of pain; she had developed a fibroma in her uterus. Before the required surgical operation, and conscious of the risk that her continued pregnancy brought, she pleaded with the surgeon to save the life of the child she was carrying, and entrusted herself to prayer and Providence. The life was saved, for which she thanked the Lord. She spent the seven months remaining until the birth of the child in incomparable strength of spirit and unrelenting dedication to her tasks as mother and doctor. She worried that the baby in her womb might be born in pain, and she asked God to prevent that.

A few days before the child was due, although trusting as always in Providence, she was ready to give her life in order to save that of her child: “If you must decided between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child - I insist on it. Save him”. On the morning of April 21, 1962, Gianna Emanuela was born. Despite all efforts and treatments to save both of them, on the morning of April 28, amid unspeakable pain and after repeated exclamations of “Jesus, I love you. Jesus, I love you», the mother died. She was 39 years old. Her funeral was an occasion of profound grief, faith and prayer. The Servant of God lies in the cemetery of Mesero (4 km from Magenta).

“Conscious immolation», was the phrase used by Pope Paul VI to define the act of Blessed Gianna, remembering her at the Sunday Angelus of September 23, 1973, as: “A young mother from the diocese of Milan, who, to give life to her daughter, sacrificed her own, with conscious immolation”. The Holy Father in these words clearly refers to Christ on Calvary and in the Eucharist.

Gianna was beatified by Pope John Paul II on April 24, 1994, during the international Year of the Family.

-Vatican Website

Immolation. Sacrifice. Words we no longer use... Mr. Lake, I guess we just don't believe in redemptive suffering anymore. Kyrie Eleison. Thank you for your thoughts...
David Pasinski
8 years 7 months ago
The witness of Gianna Molla is, in some ways, truly edifying, and I remeber the press at the time of her beatification. However, the substance of her case is so entiely different from that which occured in Phoenix that it has no material parallel. The fetus would not have lived if the the mother died. This was not the case for Blessed Molla.
james belna
8 years 7 months ago
First, Bishop Olmsted didn’t excommunicate Sr McBride; he made a finding that, under church law, she had willfully committed an act that necessarily entailed the sanction of excommunication. That is a judgment call that he had to make under the facts known to him. Obviously, it would have been easier for all concerned if he had simply looked the other way – but he wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors, least of all Sr McBride, if he had given her a false assurance that she had not committed a gravely sinful act.
Second, Sr. McBride obviously knew that this was a questionable ethical decision. If nothing else, it was grossly irresponsible for her to authorize a Catholic hospital to perform an abortion without giving the bishop an opportunity to weigh in on the matter. Had she done so, she would not have found herself in this position.
Third, the bishop holds a teaching office. One way or another, this case is going to be a precedent. Bishop Olmsted has the right and duty to provide an authoritative interpretation of the law that is binding on Catholic hospitals within his jurisdiction. To his credit, he has assumed complete responsibility for resolving this profoundly difficult ethical dilemma. We all now know that, at least in Phoenix, it is morally impermissible to perform an abortion even to save the life of the mother.
Finally, the sanction of excommunication can be lifted immediately if Sr McBride decides to reconcile herself to Bishop Olmsted’s interpretation of Church law. Perhaps she has already done so. Of course, if she insists on the right to maintain her own personal interpretation - which is to say, if she will not promise to refrain from authorizing any more abortions in the future – then her personal situation will continue to be problematic.

James Lindsay
8 years 7 months ago
The Bishop's observations on whether she is excommunicate or not are simply observations. For there to be consequences, like expulsion from her order, due process must be maintained. Also, if her confessor disagrees with the bishop, her confessor is correct. Indeed, if her conscience agrees disagrees with the bishop and she truly examines the circumstances in light of canon law and finds that there was no alternative, she is not excommunicate - at least according to the article I cited above.

You cannot have it both ways. The Bishop can either do a real canon law process with all its consequences or the matter is for Sister Margaret and her confessor to resolve according to the dictates of his guidance and her conscience.

The office of bishop is not just for teaching, it is also pastoral. You cannot pastor by press release.
Dimitri Cavalli
8 years 7 months ago
When did supporting war and death penalty become "grave sins"? Is this now Church teaching or the opinion of a handful of theologians?
In 2004, then-Cardinal Ratzinger affirmed that Catholics can disagree with the pope on the death penalty and war but not abortion and euthanasia because the latter two could never be morally justified. See
David Nickol
8 years 7 months ago
Norman Costa:
From what I have read, the decision was made based on going with directive 47 rather than directive 45 from the USCCB:
Number 45 states: ''Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted. Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion, which, in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo. Catholic health care institutions are not to provide abortion services, even based upon the principle of material cooperation. In this context, Catholic health care institutions need to be concerned about the danger of scandal in any association with abortion providers.''
Number 47 states: ''Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.
There was an excellent discussion of some of the moral theology involved on the Commonweal Magazine blog (dotCommonweal):
Of particular interest is a discussion by Germain Grisez under the heading ''Question D:?Is Abortion Always the Wrongful Killing of a Person?'' on the web site ''The Way of the Lord Jesus'':
A great deal hinges on what is meant by ''direct'' and ''indirect'' abortion. It is necessary to read what Grisez has written, but I don't believe I am going too far wrong in saying that for Grisez, an indirect abortion is not an abortion in which you do not touch the fetus (as in, say, the removal of a cancerous uterus or the removal of a fallopian tube in case of an ectopic pregnancy), but an abortion in which there is no intention to kill the developing child (even if you do). The example he gives is craniotomy - the crushing of a fetus's skull when its head is too large for a normal delivery. (Of course, in the developed countries, there are alternatives.) The intention is not to kill the fetus, but to reduce the size of the head. That at first glance is difficult to accept, but the point he makes is that the death of the fetus is not a necessary part of the procedure, since if the baby were being born already dead, exactly the same procedure would be used. NOTE: Anyone who wants to criticize Grisez's ideas should read Grisez. Please do NOT criticize based on my inadequate summary. Also, please note that Sr. Margaret McBride has not said Grisez's interpretations of direct and indirect abortion influenced her thinking.
The interesting question, as I see it, is whether the it is clearly and indisputably the position of the Catholic Church that when continuing with a pregnancy will kill a mother she reaches the point of viability for the child she is carrying, there is no alternative but to let both the mother and the fetus die rather than save the mother. It is fine to say you must try to save both, but the only way to save an 11-week-old fetus is to let the pregnancy continue, and if letting the pregnancy continue kills the mother, the fetus will die, too.
David Nickol
8 years 7 months ago
Greg Popcak,
I didn't see quite as much of a consensus on Mirror of Justice as you did, and I thought it was very interesting that Robert George, whose pro-life credentials can't be doubted, said, '' . . . . especially in light of her endorsement of Germain Grisez's theory of human action as applied to the analysis of abortion and killing generally (a theory I, too, endorse) . . . .''  While Professor George did not weigh in on the decision made by Sr. Margaret McBride - and let me emphasize that we can't know his position until he gives it - he nevertheless endorsed Grisez's ''theory of human action as applied to the analysis of abortion.'' Others - but not George himself - have argued that Grisez's theories permit an abortion in the Phoenix case, because it would be an indirect abortion. ''indirect,'' in this case, is a technical term, and it would be a mistake to criticize Grisez based on a ''commonsense'' definition or dictionary definition of the term. Of course, that doesn't mean everyone is obliged to agree with Grisez. 
8 years 7 months ago
Sixth Sunday of Easter, 16 May 2004

Gianna Beretta Molla was a simple, but more than ever, significant messenger of divine love. In a letter to her future husband a few days before their marriage, she wrote: "Love is the most beautiful sentiment the Lord has put into the soul of men and women".

Following the example of Christ, who "having loved his own... loved them to the end" (Jn 13: 1), this holy mother of a family remained heroically faithful to the commitment she made on the day of her marriage. The extreme sacrifice she sealed with her life testifies that only those who have the courage to give of themselves totally to God and to others are able to fulfil themselves.

Through the example of Gianna Beretta Molla, may our age rediscover the pure, chaste and fruitful beauty of conjugal love, lived as a response to the divine call!
Benjamin Alexander
8 years 7 months ago
How are you helping this conversation? I'm serious: it's already been stated but it bears repeating: these cases are not analogous. 
This blog is so frustrating on the comments page. 
8 years 7 months ago
So say you, Mr. Alexander.


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