Recently, the news covered a tragedy that no family wants to face; woman is 11-weeks pregnant and in grave danger of losing her life. According to doctors, the patient was in “heart failure” and if the pregnancy were to continue, mortality of the mother was “close to 100%”
“They were in quite a dilemma,” says Lisa Sowle Cahill, who teaches Catholic theology at Boston College. “There was no good way out of it. The official church position would mandate that the correct solution would be to let both the mother and the child die. I think in the practical situation that would be a very hard choice to make.”
But the hospital felt it could proceed because of an exception — called Directive 47 in the U.S. Catholic Church’s ethical guidelines for health care providers — that allows, in some circumstance, procedures that could kill the fetus to save the mother. Sister Margaret McBride, who was an administrator at the hospital as well as its liaison to the diocese, gave her approval.
In the end Sr. McBride, with the ethics committee, approved the abortion and the woman’s life was saved, but in doing so, Sr. McBride was excommunicated from the Church. Why? Because, Sr. McBride, as a Catholic, has the responsibility to respect all human life, even that of the unborn.
From the Catholic Cathechism:
2270 Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.72
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.73
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.74
2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:
You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.75
God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.76
2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,”77 “by the very commission of the offense,”78 and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law.79 The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.
2273 The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation:
“The inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death.”80
“The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined. . . . As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child’s rights.”81
2274 Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.
Prenatal diagnosis is morally licit, “if it respects the life and integrity of the embryo and the human fetus and is directed toward its safe guarding or healing as an individual. . . . It is gravely opposed to the moral law when this is done with the thought of possibly inducing an abortion, depending upon the results: a diagnosis must not be the equivalent of a death sentence.”82
2275 “One must hold as licit procedures carried out on the human embryo which respect the life and integrity of the embryo and do not involve disproportionate risks for it, but are directed toward its healing the improvement of its condition of health, or its individual survival.”83
“It is immoral to produce human embryos intended for exploitation as disposable biological material.”84
“Certain attempts to influence chromosomic or genetic inheritance are not therapeutic but are aimed at producing human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities. Such manipulations are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being and his integrity and identity”85 which are unique and unrepeatable.
The decision of the bishop of excommunicate Sr. McBride has drawn ire from those who disagree him.
The abortion was necessary to save the patient’s life. And of course a fetus couldn’t survive if the woman died at 11 weeks – a fact that wouldn’t change my feelings on saving a woman’s life anyway, but it does show Olmsted’s interest really isn’t in saving life.
The position of the Phoenix archdiocese is clear: a fetus is more valuable than the life of a woman. In fact, it’s more important not to directly terminate a fetus than to save a woman’s life even if the fetus couldn’t survive anyway. Which means a nun who acted to save a life has no place in that church according to its top official.
At the very least, a life-saving abortion such as the one in question should be accepted by the Catholic Church as an act of self-defense. As the Catholic Church’s Catechism says: “Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore 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.“ So why, for some elements of the Catholic Church, is the fetus’ so-called “life” the only one sacred and worth saving? Why deny women the ability to defend their own lives, which the Church has stated is a legitimate aspect of morality.
(Edited to add: It took a lot of thinking today to address the section that I’ve bolded and put into italics. The author does make a valid point in that a person is entitled to self defense to preserve their own life, however, in the Arizona case, the fetus was not causing the mother harm, rather it was her own heart acting as aggressor to her life. Now I guess you could say that the pregnancy exacerbated an already dire situation but we still don’t know if the heart condition was in play before the pregnancy.)
I am not going to get into Canon Law (because I am not a Canon Law scholar) and if the bishop was right or wrong to excommunicate but what I know to be clear is this, and rebuffs the two conclusions above: The reason why the abortion was a grave offense is that doctors were not 100% that the woman was going to die. Our faith teaches us that God is always in control and every life is sacred to him. Miracles happen everyday, and this case might have ended in the miracle of God saving both the mother and child had the mother been allowed to carry her pregnancy to term. God may have chosen to take the child home to him before the end of the pregnancy. When human interfere with the Divine Will of God is when problems arise. Faith requires us to trust in God, especially when the road is dark and dangerous.
In 1961, St. Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian physician and mother, died as a result of saving the life of her unborn child:
In September 1961 towards the end of the second month of pregnancy, she was touched by suffering and the mystery of pain; she had developed a fibroma in her uterus. Before the required surgical operation, and conscious of the risk that her continued pregnancy brought, she pleaded with the surgeon to save the life of the child she was carrying, and entrusted herself to prayer and Providence. The life was saved, for which she thanked the Lord. She spent the seven months remaining until the birth of the child in incomparable strength of spirit and unrelenting dedication to her tasks as mother and doctor. She worried that the baby in her womb might be born in pain, and she asked God to prevent that.
A few days before the child was due, although trusting as always in Providence, she was ready to give her life in order to save that of her child: “If you must decided between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child – I insist on it. Save him”. On the morning of April 21, 1962, Gianna Emanuela was born. Despite all efforts and treatments to save both of them, on the morning of April 28, amid unspeakable pain and after repeated exclamations of “Jesus, I love you. Jesus, I love you», the mother died. She was 39 years old. Her funeral was an occasion of profound grief, faith and prayer. The Servant of God lies in the cemetery of Mesero (4 km from Magenta).
As far as excommunication goes:
Excommunication, it must be remembered, is a medicinal penalty intended, above all, for the correction of the culprit; therefore his first duty is to solicit pardon by showing an inclination to obey the orders given him, just as it is the duty of ecclesiastical authority to receive back the sinner as soon as he repents and declares himself disposed to give the required satisfaction.
There are so many difficult decisions in life and God wants us to come to him when we have to make those choices. He will always show us His will which may or may not be aligned with our will. Please remember the mother, the baby, Sr. McBride and the whole ethics committee at St. Joseph’s Hospital in your prayers.
Edited to add: I emailed my priest about excommunication and here is the conversation:
I wrote a blog post this morning about the Arizona nun who was excommunicated for voting with the ethics committee to OK an abortion to save a mother’s life, and I have a question:
I understand why the nun was excommunicated. Were the priests involved in abuse cases also excommunicated? If not, why?
A quick answer is just that anyone who actively participates in an abortion (including a husband who drives his wife) automatically incurs an abortion. That can be removed in the confessional through absolution. However, since this took place in the public forum, the church was forced to respond publically as well. So the difference canonically is private vs. public sin. In both cases the soul is in mortal peril. If a priest publically supported the abuse of minors, or racism, etc…he would incur the same public penalty.
So, to clairfy, the priest involved in the sex abuse scandals were most likely excommunicated as well? Would they have to be found guilty by a jury first or are the allegations enough?
No, private and public sin are two different realities. Anyone in moral sin is “excommunicated” or out of communion with the church. Formal cases are only made public in public circumstances.
(end of email conversation)
Agree with me? Disagree with me? Let me know your thoughts! But, please keep the debate respectful. Remember sitting behind each screen is a person with feelings.