Revisiting Sr. McBride vs. Olmstead hospital abortion case

In the fall of 2009, woman patient 10 weeks pregnant was diagnosed with severe pulmonary arterial hypertension. Pulmonary hypertension impairs the function of the heart and is exacerbated during pregnancy by increased hormonal activity of the placenta. In this case the medical records state that the mother had right heart failure and cardiogenic shock. The medical team caring for the woman informed her and the ethics committee of the hospital that both the mother and the child would probably die unless the infant were taken from the mother’s womb. The mother originally did not wish to lose the infant but consented to the surgery when she heard the pregnancy was life-threatening.

The ethical code for Catholic hospitals allows the early delivery of a viable infant for a proportionate reason. At 10 weeks, the infant is far from viable. The code also allows an indirect abortion, that is, when the direct effect of a procedure is the cure of a serious pathological condition, for example removal of a cancerous uterus, and the infant dies as a result of the procedure. The code does not allow a direct abortion, however, in which “the sole and immediate effect of the procedure is termination of a pregnancy before viability.” Think-ing that both mother and infant would die if nothing were done, Sister Mary Margaret McBride, speaking for the ethics committee, gave permission to the medical team to terminate the pregnancy.

Within a few months Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, after learning that this procedure had been performed in the Catholic hospital, interviewed the chief executive officer of the hospital and Sister McBride, who had given permission for the surgery that terminated the pregnancy. The bishop declared that the sister had incurred an excommunication because she had cooperated in procuring a direct abortion.

For those of you who believe the hospital should not have terminated the baby’s life, would it have made more ethical for both of them to die when it could have been prevented? The pregnant woman in question was on her fifth child, hardly what you would call an anti-family person. Would some of you at least admit that this particular case gives one pause? Or is it a moral no-brainer for you?

Still a moral no-brainer. “Termination of a pregnancy” is never acceptable even if there is a risk for death of both patients. The ends do not justify the means, saving the life of the mother cannot come from the deliberate murder of her child but must come from a genuine treatment of both persons as patients worthy of life and care.

A pregnant mother can seek treatment such as chemotherapy for cancer even if it puts the baby at risk, as long as this risk toward the baby is not the intention. But one may never intentionally kill the fetus.

Certainly this is a very emotional situation but the morality of abortion is not changed. Let us move away from the barbaric idea that it is good to treat two equal human persons as unequal, and to dehumanize the unborn and say they are not, in fact, creations of the Most High, infinitely loved by Him and having a unique role in the world given by Him. Let us move toward the idea that both are persons whose right to life cannot be violated, and seek ways to treat these illnesses without the use of unjust violence.

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Direct abortion is never moral, even if it would save a million people.

In this situation, the physicians have two patients. Both need the best care available, you can read scholarly articles that outline the standard of care and treatments for these conditions. Treatments range from many pharmacological options to the implantation of assist devices, some of these treatments may result in miscarriage or fetal death. Those are unintended consequences, not direct abortion.

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This situation of the mother getting the abortion in a Catholic hospital is not a ‘win’.

If a mother of four was in a car accident and her child was killed, there would be an outpouring of grief and loss at the death of a child. The circumstances would be terrible, and the loss unbearable.

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Terminating the pregnancy was done to save the mother’s life, not to kill the foetus. Death of the foetus was an unintended, unwanted effect. Therefore I feel that the hospital made the correct, albeit very sad, decision. In a situation such as this, the final decision should by down to the mother.

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The act of terminating the baby’s life involved actually directly killing the baby (medical abortion); the act was not some other medical procedure which had as a side-effect the death of the baby.

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This depends on what the means used was. One can make the argument that removal of a fallopian tube with an embryo in it (ectopic pregnancy) can be removed as a whole, because the fallopian tube is diseased, and this is one of those scenarios where death of the baby is not intended yet inevitable, and is acceptable. One could also say, I believe, that removal of the whole uterus if diseased, including with baby inside, would also be accepted as long as the treatment is removal of the diseased uterus, not to end pregnancy.

But a direct abortion (such as dismemberment abortion, or saline abortion, or medication abortion, or any abortion which is a direct attack on the fetus) never falls under that category.

CCC 2271

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

Even to save the mother’s life, intentionally terminating the pregnancy is wrong. However, treatment of the disease which unintentionally and tragically results in the death of the child is not forbidden. Going in with forceps or a vacuum to tear the baby apart dies not fall under what is acceptable, because killing the fetus is deliberate. Using medication to cause a miscarriage is not acceptable either, because killing the fetus is deliberate.

When your intent is to go in and end the pregnancy, what you’re doing is an abortion. It doesn’t matter the reason. One could say “but the intent was to save the mother, not harm the child”. This wouldn’t make sense, because the planned treatment to save the mother is to kill the child/end the pregnancy. And abortion is never alright either as an end or a means (abortion for the sake of saving the mother is abortion as a means).

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What is the reason for “revisiting” this?

Are there some new developments in the case?

Did something happen in the 11 years since it occurred?

Puzzled,
Deacon Christopher

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It might be a moral no brainer for people who are not in the position of making the decision as to loose the life of a child or loose the life of the child and mother and wife.

Maybe they should have done an emergency c-section, placed the baby in the nic icu, and attempted to save the life of the child. In all likelyhood the child would not have survived, but would premature c-section have been a more acceptable choice, or just a different form of abortion in the attempt to save the life of the mother?

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It’s sad that another option wasn’t available to save both. A medical procedure or medication to keep both stable until a premature delivery.

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I think at 10 weeks babies wouldn’t survive a c section. That’s basically first trimester.

Preemies born towards the end of the second trimester or beginning of the third have a better outcome. 10 weeks is just too small and not developed enough to survive.

In the future, maybe. But not yet.

@Diaconia Deacon Christopher, could you explain the Church’s official stance on this. It would be much appreciated. Thank you.

I agree, but the goal would be to save both mother and child. Does that make a difference?

When the mother or baby is in distress emergency c sections may be done in an effort to save them both. There is no guarantee that both will be saved at any stage pregnancy, just better odds the longer it is in term.

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No, I just came across the case on the internet, so the revisiting was solely mine.

Thanks for all replies so far. To me, it’s just sad that the moral thing to do in this case is really just keep the patient (mom) comfortable until they both die, given that one of them could be saved. Do nothing and they both die.

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This is not the guaranteed outcome. The woman can receive treatment for her disease. It just has to be remembered that pregnancy is not the disease, and abortion is not the treatment.

If nothing is done, sure. They’ll both die. But we’re not advocating for doing nothing. We are advocating for doing something that isn’t abortion.

If somebody hands Jim a gun and points him toward 5 year old Billy and says “kill him and you live, don’t and I kill you both”, is it moral for Jim to shoot and kill Billy? One could say Jim was acting out of fear for his life and therefore may not be entirely culpable, sure. We’re not out to condemn Jim. But objectively, was killing billy the right thing to do? After all, it could save one of them as opposed to both of them dying.

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The Kill Bill analogy doesn’t entirely work here. The doctor is not threatening to kill them both if she doesn’t consent to the abortion.

No, but you propose that the disease will kill both of them if the mother does not determine to have an abortion.

Remember, the criminal is the disease. Not the baby. Don’t point the gun at the baby, point the gun at the disease.

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Another way the analogy limps. The “somebody” in your little story could simply put the gun down and no one dies. It would be needless to shoot Billy or the other person. In this case, inaction inevitably leads to both of their deaths.

I think it is important for those who uphold the Catholic position that so-called ‘direct’ abortion is never justified under any circumstances to appreciate how extreme this position is on the range of opinion on abortion. As far as I know there are virtually no jurisdictions in which such abortions are not legal if the purpose is to save the life of the mother. I am guessing but I think the vast majority of practising Catholics support such laws in practice. Catholic politicians for example never advocate this position but concentrate on other aspects of the law.

So not, nothing has changed. But lack of change does not remove the issue - the Catholic position is rejected by the vast majority of people, and Catholics do not advocate for it in an open way. The vast majority of people think abortion necessary to save the life of the mother should be accepted.

Deacon Christopher do you initiate discussion and advocate openly for this position and a change to the law where you live to ban such abortions? If not, why not? If so, what response do you get?

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