May 21, 2010

An Impossible Situation: The Bishop versus the Nun

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The situation: in late 2009 at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona the nun, Sister Margaret Mary McBride, was part of a committee consultation to decide a course of treatment for a woman 11 weeks pregnant. The medical team treating the woman had determined that the woman’s medical situation was life-threatening. She suffered from “a rare and often fatal condition in which pregnancy can cause the death of the mother...The condition [pulmonary hypertension] limits the ability of the heart and lungs to function and is made worse, possibly fatal, by pregnancy.” The consultation was comprised of the patient, her doctors, and McBride, who is a nurse and a representative of the hospital’s ethics committee. The decision was made to terminate the pregnancy.

     Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix learned of the abortion after the fact, and in a subsequent news release is quoted as saying, “While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother’s life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means...If a catholic formally cooperates in the procurement of an abortion, they are automatically excommunicated.”

     The situation was impossible. It pitted the mother’s life against that of the eleven week fetus. It was a true dilemma—a choice between two equally unpleasant alternatives! If the pregnant woman tried to carry the fetus to term, the medical prognosis was that she could die trying to do so. The fetus was only eleven weeks at the point the decision was made to abort. Generally a fetus becomes viable at the beginning of the third trimester (sometime between the beginning of the 24th and 28th weeks—no baby has ever been successfully delivered before the middle of the 22nd week). Therefore if the mother died in the next 11-12 weeks (three months) the baby would die as well. And if the mother placed her life in jeopardy by trying to carry the fetus to term, the medical prognosis was that she might die, although the baby might survive if the mother died after the beginning of the 23rd week. On the other hand, an abortion removed the serious threat to the life of the mother. There was no “good” alternative. The choice was a dirty shade of gray—a choice between two “bad” alternatives. And no matter what the decision was, the result would be devastating for the family.

     Sister McBride apparently recognized the nature of the medical dilemma and supported the decision to abort. The Bishop, on the other hand, put church doctrine over a sensitive weighing of the situation. The perspectives of each were no doubt influenced by their own situations in life: the Bishop, an administrator and enforcer of church dogma; the sister, a healer and care-giver.

     It would be nice if all our choices were as crystal clear as the Bishop seemed to think this one was. But, alas, there are few absolute rights and absolute wrongs. What I mean is: in our complex world when we choose one course of action we think is “right,” more often than not the “right” choice results in harm somewhere along the line—as in this situation. Sister McBride seemed to recognize that. Abortion is never “right,” but in this case it was the least worst of two “wrong” choices. Apparently the Bishop in his zeal to protect the fetus did not recognize that his choice could lead directly to the death of the mother—using the Bishop’s word, his choice could “kill” the mother, and the fetus might still not survive—a true no win situation!

     Contrary to the Bishop, this particular situation at bottom was not theological or ecclesiastical—it was not even a societal moral issue. Rather it was a life and death dilemma facing a particular woman eleven weeks pregnant. Such a decision is best left to the mother in consultation with her physicians and others she chooses to consult. Pondering whether you will suffer and live or die is a very personal decision and it is best left to you. Everyone else is merely a spectator, and spectators have no skin in the game.


Michael Clancy (The Arizona Republic), “Abortion Leads to Reassignment,” The Springfield News-Leader, May 16, 8A.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 9:11am