A mother’s life and a church’s moral failure?

Of course the RC Church thinks only a bishop can make some judgments, but perhaps we should judge this bishop.

Here’s what happened:

Sister Margaret was a senior administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. A 27-year-old mother of four arrived late last year, in her third month of pregnancy. According to local news reports and accounts from the hospital and some of its staff members, the mother suffered from a serious complication called pulmonary hypertension. That created a high probability that the strain of continuing pregnancy would kill her.

“In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother’s life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy,” the hospital said in a statement. “This decision was made after consultation with the patient, her family, her physicians, and in consultation with the Ethics Committee.”

Sister Margaret was a member of that committee…the bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmstead, ruled that Sister Margaret was “automatically excommunicated” because she assented to an abortion.

“The mother’s life cannot be preferred over the child’s,” the bishop’s communication office elaborated in a statement.

The bishop doesn’t seem to have characterized the decision correctly.  There are two options:  (a) do nothing and it is highly  likely the mother and fetus both die, and four children are left motherless or (b) perform an abortion and the 11 week old fetus dies.

Nicholas Kristoff, the NY Times columnist writing about the report, calls for a public outcry to retify this injustice.  What do you think?

8 thoughts on “A mother’s life and a church’s moral failure?

  1. Imagine if certain church leaders put as much energy into being anti-war as they do into being anti-woman and anti-gay. But that would mean challenging powerful institutions and political forces, so it’s not going to happen. Classic intimidatory tactics against the weaker parties. I only hope the Catholic Church continues to tear itself apart in this way.

  2. I heard about this a few days ago and I am sincerely confused. I am not Catholic (or even a theist) but I went to a RC university, and it is my understanding, that according to Catholic teaching, abortion is permissible if it’s necessary to save the life of the mother, on the principle of the double effect.

    @captiver- I agree, although I think some Catholic leaders do try to take a stand against war, but I’m not certain why it’s not taken more seriously? If you have an EBSCO subscription: http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&hid=108&sid=ef211db9-6b16-49b9-b331-200c01356a59%40sessionmgr104

  3. Kathryn, Thanks for the link. I know *some* Catholic leaders do take such a stand. But when you have the pope asserting, as he did this month in Fatima, that abortion and same-sex marriage are among most “insidious and dangerous” threats facing the world today, it’s pretty clear that being anti-war (or pro gun-control, or, or, or…) is not a high priority. (I read through the actual papal speech — barf — and it doesn’t mention war, or any other such causes of death, at all.) As far as I understand the Catholic rulebook in effect at the minute, abortion/killing the fetus can ONLY happen if it is a effect of life-saving measure, e.g. if in saving the mother the fetus dies. The fetus cannot be aborted IN ORDER TO SAVE the mother, which was what happened in the Sister Margaret case. (I’m an atheist, fyi.)

    The link you provided, and other RC discussions of the morality or not of war I’ve seen rightly allow there to be nuance, factors, considerations, etc. etc. With abortion, it’s zero tolerance; no nuance, no factors, no considerations. So, while you can, under some circs, be justified in wiping out a village of civilians in a war depending on X, Y, or Z, not so for women seeking abortions. I hate to be a cheap-ass sloganeer on the erudite Fem Phil site, but what the hey: The RC Church hates women.

  4. Ha. I should probably clarify- I’m certainly not trying to say that the RC Church takes as stong a stand as it should on war (particularly when they do take such a strong stand on abortion), just that some folks within it do. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, but it’s an examination of the history of the church, particularly with respect to women/reproductive issues/marriage, and the disdain for women would be hilarious it’s so absurd, except for the historical impact it’s actually had is quite depressing and not funny (e.g. women can’t be priests, because they’re less rational, we know they’re less rational because they are made up of more water than men are, and water is a passive element– and no joke, I know someone who said this, not in the middle ages, but within the last few years).

    With respect to abortion, maybe this just is just a professor getting it wrong, but my ethics professor had said that the RC church teaching allowed for abortion to save the life of the mother (i.e. the sort that happened in this case) and we got into quite an argument about it because I said if *that* is permissible on the PoDE, then it cannot be the case that abortion is intrinsically evil as the Church says, because the PoDE doesn’t allow for you to use an “evil” means to achieve a good end.

    I asked a few Catholic philosophers I know when I heard about this story a couple days ago, and they said the same thing as my ethics professor (i.e. it was ok, as long as the intent was to save the mother).

  5. What is totally insane and infuriating about this obsession with the fetus is that it also overrules concerns with the well-being of other alive-and-kicking children, in this case the four children this woman already has. Of course, there is the pervasive ideology that a mother should sacrifice everything and anything for the well-being of her offspring (including possibly her own life), but what when the well-being (an euphemism for ‘the life’) of one child conflicts with the well-being of other children? On what grounds is it justified to put the well-being of a fetus above the well-being of these four children? Options (a) and (b) as formulated by jj above make this absurdity very clear.

    As for what the ‘correct’ position of the Catholic church is vis-a-vis abortion in the case of a life-threatening situation for the mother; it shouldn’t in any way be surprising that there seems to be disagreement there within the church itself. How to interpret religious dogmas is precisely what keeps theologians busy, and some excellent philosophy has come out of that too (speaking from the point of view of a historian of philosophy, and thinking in particular of the Latin medieval tradition). So I wouldn’t say that that’s a sign of ‘inconsistency’; just as everywhere else there are the hard-liners and there are the people who are able to see things with more nuance and sophistication, also within the Catholic church.

  6. So if the woman had been left untreated and both she and the foetus died, I assume that – whilst the ethics committee may have been charged with manslaughter, Sister Margaret would not have been ‘automatically excommunicated’?

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