Catholic Hospital Stands Up Against Bishop to Provide Life-Saving Abortions

St. Joseph’s, a Catholic hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, generated a heap of controversy earlier this year for making the apparently profoundly un-Catholic decision to save a woman’s life. Even though the woman had a “close to 100 percent” probability of dying without the recommended abortion, meaning her 11-week-old fetus also had no chance of survival, the Catholic Church’s stance remained that it’s better to allow a mother of four to die than perform that evil medical procedure. Now, due to the hospital’s principled refusal to deny life-saving medical care to women, it has been kicked out of the Catholic Church.

No matter how hard I try, I cannot understand the stance of Rev. John Ehrich, medical ethics director for the Diocese of Phoenix, who argued that, making the right decision under Catholic doctrine, “There are some situations where the mother may in fact die along with her child.” Even though, abortion or no abortion, the fetus will not survive, the woman must also be sacrificed. His viewpoint enjoyed the support of Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmstead, who issued an ultimatum: promise to let women die in the future, or you’re out of the Catholic Church. St. Joseph’s chose life.

St. Joseph’s gave a statement about their principled refusal to give in to the bishop’s demands: “Morally, ethically, and legally we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save.” This hospital’s stand is heartening, but Bishop Olmstead’s decision that Catholic hospitals cannot provide live-saving medical care has frightening ramifications. Fifteen percent of all hospital beds in the United States are Catholic-run. And not all Catholic hospitals are willing to reject this anti-life decree to protect women; in fact, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) raises concerns about other religiously affiliated hospitals denying emergency care. They are asking Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to investigate these infractions, since these hospitals, receive federal money and are bound by law to provide emergency abortions.

Although I strongly believe that a woman has the right to control her own body and decide what happens in her womb, I attempt to be understanding that, for certain people who believe life begins at conception, an abortion is a terrible action that kills a living human being. I respect people who are both “pro-life” — believe life begins at conception and thus abortion is wrong — and “pro-choice” — believe a woman nonetheless retain control over her own body and the decision whether to have an abortion. Yet in this situation, I’m at a loss to interpret Bishop Olmstead’s decision as anything less than a callous disregard for the lives of women, and an absurdly rigid adherence to a deeply misogynistic interpretation of Catholic doctrine.

In a statement denouncing Bishop Olmstead’s decision, Catholics for Choice President Jon O’Brien, found one “silver lining” to the hospital’s loss of affiliation: “Ultimately, when a bishop stops pretending to be a doctor, the whole community benefits.”

I’m not a scholar of Catholic theology, but at the very least, this should fall under self-defense. The Catholic Catechism even says that “it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow.” And, as regards the hospital’s role: “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life.” The stubborn adherence to no abortion, no matter the circumstances, fails these principles.

Photo credit: William Murphy

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