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Roman Catholicism and abortion access

Cases where Catholic teachings on abortion
may cause, rather than prevent, death. Part 2

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This topic is a continuation from Part 1

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A situation involving the imminent death of the mother (Cont'd):

Some might argue that the abortion was an evil and immoral act because it would have ended the fetus' life prematurely. If no abortion were performed, the fetus would have probably lived for many hours until after the woman had died, thus causing death of the fetus. The abortion would have reduced the fetus' life span by many hours. However, it should be noted that the fetus was only about half of the way between conception and the time when it would have become sentient -- where its higher brain functions would have first turned on, it would have became conscious to some degree; it would have became aware of its environment to some degree, etc. At 11 weeks gestation, when the abortion was performed, it would have had no consciousness, no awareness of itself or its environment. Without consciousness, the fetus had no quality of life to lose.

Under canon law, anyone knowingly involved in the abortion procedure is automatically excommunicated. That can be lifted by the Sacrament of Reconciliation (commonly called "confession"). One problem with this path is that it requires the individual to intend to never repeat the action in the future. This might be impossible to do. An alternate path is an appeal to the Vatican.

Sister Judith Carle, board chairperson of Catholic Healhcare West, and its President & CEO Lloyd Dean sent a letter to Bishop Olmstead asking for further clarification. It said, in part:

"If there had been a way to save the pregnancy and still prevent the death of the mother, we would have done it. We are convinced there was not."

Sister McBride has since been demoted and assigned to other duties. 1

During 2010-JUL, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services alerting them to the potential violations of federal laws by religiously affiliated hospitals who refuse to provide life-saving abortions to women in crisis pregnancies. They asked for an investigation. 2

Religiously affiliated hospitals across the country inappropriately and unlawfully deny pregnant women emergency medical care. This issue was recently highlighted by a situation in Phoenix, Arizona, where St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, a Catholic-owned hospital, provided a lifesaving abortion to a young mother of four in November 2009. The woman was eleven weeks pregnant and suffered from life-threatening pulmonary hypertension, which is high blood pressure in the arteries that supply blood to the lungs. As her condition worsened, the hospital diagnosed her with right-sided heart failure and cardiogenic shock, and determined that she would almost certainly die unless she terminated the pregnancy. ..."

"... the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, which oversees St. Joseph’s, denounced the abortion and issued a statement explaining that abortion is never allowed in Catholic health facilities, even to save the life of the woman. Accordingly, although the hospital provided the life-saving care that the patient needed, in accordance with medical ethics, the COP, and EMTALA, Sister McBride’s subsequent treatment and the diocese’s unambiguous statement sends the message to other hospital employees, at St. Joseph’s and at other Catholic hospitals around the country, that they risk punishment if they provide life-saving pregnancy terminations in the future. ...

"Catholic hospitals operate 15% of the hospital beds in the country, and are often the only hospital in a particular community, and therefore the only place where a woman can obtain care. As a result, many pregnant women who seek emergency reproductive health care in Catholic hospitals do not share the religious beliefs of the hospital, and may not receive appropriate medical care. ..."

The refusal to provide timely reproductive health care to pregnant women seriously
threatens their health and lives. For example:

  • A doctor in the Northeast decided to leave a Catholic-owned hospital after he was forced by the ethics committee to risk a pregnant patient’s life. The woman was in the process of miscarrying at 19 weeks of pregnancy. She was dying: her temperature was 106 degrees, she had disseminated intravascular coagulopathy, which is a life-threatening condition that prevents a person’s blood from clotting normally and causes excessive bleeding. This patient was bleeding so badly that the sclera, the whites of her eyes, were red, filled with blood. ... Despite the fact that there was no chance the fetus could survive, the ethics committee told the doctor that he could not perform the abortion the woman needed to save her life until the fetus’s heartbeat stopped. The patient was in the
    Intensive Care Unit for ten days, and developed pulmonary disease, resulting in lifetime oxygen dependency.

  • One doctor in a Western urban area described how a Catholic-owned hospital asked her hospital to accept the transfer of a pregnant patient who was in the midst of miscarrying and needed emergency care because she was septic and hemorrhaging. The patient needed the pregnancy to be terminated to prevent further risk to her health, which the Catholic hospital refused to allow the doctor to do, even though transporting her while she was unstable created additional risks to her health.

  • In another situation, a doctor working at a Catholic-owned hospital in the Midwest was forced to send her patient, who was 14 weeks pregnant, 90 miles by ambulance to another hospital to treat a miscarriage already in progress – the patient’s membranes had already ruptured and her health was at risk. 2

Thomas Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix, wrote a letter to Lloyd H. Dean, President of Catholic Healthcare West in San Francisco, the hospital's parent company. Dean had noted in a previous letter that:

"As you know, many knowledgeable moral theologians have reviewed this case, and reached a range of conclusions. If we may assume that these individuals are motivated by their faith and desire and for justice, one must at least acknowledge that this is a very complex matter, on which the best minds disagree."

Bishop Olmstead rejected this line of reasoning by stating that:

"This resolution is unacceptable because it disregards my authority and responsibility to interpret the moral law and to teach the Catholic faith as a Successor of the Apostles. ... According to Catholic teaching, ... there cannot be a 'tie' so to speak in this debate. Rather it is my duty as the chief shepherd in the diocese to interpret whether the actions at St.Joseph's and other hospitals meet the criteria of fulfilling the parameters of the moral law as seen in the ERD's."

That is, disagreements among ethical specialists does not matter. The only thing that does matter is Bishop Olmstead's ruling.

The Roman Catholic Diocese in Phoenix subsequently asked the hospital to:

  1. ".. acknowledge in writing that the medical procedure that resulted in the abortion at St. Joseph's Hospital was a violation of ERD 47 and so will never occur again at St. Joseph's Hospital."

  2. "... agree to a review and certification process conducted by the Medical Ethics Board of the Diocese of Phoenix to ensure full compliance with the Ethical and Religious Directives of the USCCB."

  3. "... agree to provide for the medical staff at St. Joseph's Hospital ongoing formation on the ERDs..." 3

They were given a few weeks to meet the Diocese's demands. Linda Hunt, President of St. Joseph’s, issued a response on 2010-DEC-21, stating that:

Though we are deeply disappointed, we will be steadfast in fulfilling our mission, St. Joseph’s hospital will remain faithful to our mission of care, as we have for the last 115 years. Our caregivers deliver extraordinary medical care and share an unmatched commitment to the well being of the communities they serve. Nothing has or will change in that regard. ... St. Joseph’s will continue through our words and deeds to carry out the healing ministry of Jesus. Our operations, policies, and procedures will not change. ... Consistent with our values of dignity and justice, if we are presented with a situation in which a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life, our first priority is to save both patients. If that is not possible we will always save the life we can save, and that is what we did in this case. We continue to stand by the decision, which was made in collaboration with the patient, her family, her caregivers, and our Ethics Committee. Morally, ethically, and legally we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save.” (Emphasis ours) 4

On the same day, the diocese terminated the hospital's affiliation with the church. They now prohibit the Blessed Sacrament from the hospital's Chapels and Tabernacles. They prohibit the celebration of Masses in the hospital's Chapels. They advised the public that St. Josephs "no longer qualifies as a 'Catholic' hospital."

Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Reproductive Freedom Project said:

"St. Joseph's made the right decision to stand up for the rights and health of women in need of life-saving care. A hospital's first responsibility must be the needs of its patients. Any hospital that fails to provide emergency abortion care violates federal law. No woman should be afraid that she will be denied the care she needs when she goes to a hospital."

Webmaster's comments: I expect that this event may cause many pregnant women to choose a hospital other that one affiliated with the Roman Catholic church, if she has that option. Unfortunately, considering the rate at which the Church is merging with non-religious hospitals and shutting down their abortion, family planning, and other services for women, an increasing number of women have no practical option but to employ the services of their local Catholic hospital and pray that they do not develop a life threatening crisis during their pregnancies. If a crisis does develop, they may pay with their life.

As mentioned elsewhere, concerns over freedom of religion -- the right of individuals and religious groups to freely practice their religious belief, seems to be changing into the freedom of religious groups to oppress others. Usually, the people targeted by religious groups are sexual minorities -- often lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender persons or transsexuals (LGBTs). In this case the oppression takes the form of requiring medical professionals to idly stand by and allow women to die needlessly.

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Related essays in this web site: 

bulletAbortion: all aspects; all points of view

bulletPagan & Christian beliefs 400 BCE -1980 CE
bullet Evolution of Roman Catholic positions on abortion: Overview
bullet Current Roman Catholic teaching
bullet Possible exceptions to the church's abortion ban
bulletJewish beliefs about abortion

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Michael Clancy, "Nun at St. Joseph's Hospital rebuked over abortion to save woman," Arizona Republic, 2010-MAY-19, at:
  2. "ACLU Letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Regarding Denial of Reproductive Health Care at Religious Hospitals," ACLU, 2010-JUL-01, at:
  3. Thomas Olmsted, "Letter from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix to Catholic Healthcare West," 2010-NOV-22, at:
  4. "St. Joseph’s Resolved in Saving Mother’s Life, Confident Following Bishop’s Announcement," Media Statement, St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, 2010-DEC-21, at:

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Copyright 1997 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2011-DEC-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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