By now most Catholics are well acquainted with the case of Margaret Mary McBride, of the Sisters of Mercy. In March the bishop of Phoenix publicly declared that Sister McBride, who is head of the ethics committee at a local Catholic hospital, had incurred an excommunication when she concurred with the hospital’s decision to abort the fetus of a gravely ill woman. The emotional furor following these actions was instigated and reported by Catholic and secular media outlets. The purpose of this article is not to add to the accusations directed at the various people and offices involved in the case. Rather, my intent is to consider the moral (bioethical) and canonical (legal) complexities of cases of this nature, to suggest how to avoid confusion in the future and perhaps to prompt some second thoughts.
In the fall of 2009, a 27-year-old woman with four children was admitted to St. Joseph Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Ariz., because of her worsening symptoms of pulmonary hypertension. Knowing that she was about 10 weeks pregnant, she was advised, prior to entering the hospital, that the safest course was to terminate the pregnancy. She rejected this proposal. The fact that she chose a Catholic hospital for treatment suggests that she did not want an abortion.
As the woman’s condition deteriorated, a cardiac catharization revealed that she suffered from “very severe pulmonary arterial hypertension with profoundly reduced cardiac output” and “right heart failure” and “cardiogenic shock,” according to the report by the hospital’s ethics committee. In other words, the medical staff believed that both mother and child would die if the present situation were allowed to continue. Thus, termination of the pregnancy was recommended and agreed to by the mother. Because of the seriousness of her condition, she could not be moved to another hospital.
The Moral Case
In accord with hospital policy, the case was referred to the ethics committee of the hospital. The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Services, issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, offers guidance for situations of this nature. Directive 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….” Abortion may not be performed as an end nor as a means. To put it another way, physicians cannot intentionally kill one person to save another.
On the other hand, Directive 47 states: “Operations, treatments and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of proportionately serious pathological conditions 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.” The most common example used to illustrate the meaning of this directive is the woman who is pregnant and is also diagnosed with cancer of the uterus. In order to preserve the woman’s life, the gravid uterus may be removed even though the infant will die as a result of the surgery. This would constitute an indirect abortion because the purpose of the act would not be to kill the infant.
The case in Phoenix calls to mind a debate I participated in 40 years ago regarding the proper treatment for preeclampsia in pregnant women. Church teaching said little on the subject; some ethicists held it was a direct abortion to evacuate the uterus. Ultimately it was decided that preeclampsia was a life-threatening infection of the endometrium and thus would justify evacuating the womb, even though the developing infant would die. In other words, we decided the recommended treatment was an indirect abortion.
Clearly, the case in Phoenix also calls for the distinction between a direct and an indirect abortion. This is the question the ethics committee had to wrestle with. Even though it is clear the surgery is recommended in order to save the woman’s life, would the surgeons be employing an evil means to achieve a good effect? In my view there is a difficulty in identifying the cause of pulmonary hypertension in this case and thus a difficulty in identifying the pathological organ. In the case of cancer of the uterus, it is not difficult to identify the pathological organ. It is the uterus. But, the cause of pulmonary hypertension is not clearly known.
Federal laws limit what can be divulged in regard to deliberations concerning patient care, but in a report later made to the bishop of Phoenix, the hospital’s ethics committee identified the pathological organ as the placenta. 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 committee might have also investigated more closely the work of the moral theologian Germain Grisez, who has argued that the principle of double effect applies to cases in which both mother and child would die if the infant were not delivered prematurely.
The committee should consider writing up this case for future study by the Catholic bioethics community. There is nothing in the existing literature concerning treatment of pregnant women who suffer from acute pulmonary hypertension.
The Canonical Case
Sometime after the termination, word reached the bishop of Phoenix that an abortion had been performed a few months before in a Catholic hospital to save a woman’s life. How exactly he learned the details of a private medical case is still unclear. The bishop interviewed the chief executive officer of the hospital and Sister McBride of the ethics committee to ascertain whether she had approved the termination. Two weeks later, the bishop informed her religious superior that Sister McBride had been excommunicated because she had approved a direct abortion. Canon 1398 of the Code of Canon Law states an automatic penalty: “A person who actually procures an abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”
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, and 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 a case arises where they may be applicable.
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. 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).
The ethical and canonical norms of the church are a safe guide for the many tangled problems individuals face today. But they are not known to all (per se nota). Research, consultation, discussion and patience are necessary to apply them well.