By Carol Costello, CNN
(CNN) – It was an agonizing decision for all involved. A 27-year-old pregnant patient at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona became gravely ill.
Doctors told her unless she aborted her 11-week-old fetus she would likely die. The problem: St. Joseph's is a Catholic hospital and abortions are largely prohibited.
Sister Margaret McBride was part of an ethics panel that included doctors that consulted with the young woman. The woman had the procedure and survived. But Sister McBride took some heat. The Phoenix Catholic Diocese, led by Bishop Thomas Olmsted, automatically excommunicated the nun, effectively banning her from participating in the church. Bishop Olmsted said, in a statement:
"An unborn child is not a disease. 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."
Father Kevin O'Rourke, a canon lawyer at Loyola University in Chicago, is familiar with McBride's case and say it is "very unusual" for a nun to be excommunicated.
He says, "In order to have an excommunication be valid, the person has to act out of deliberate desire to violate the law...there has to be malice involved." O'Rourke says there doesn't appear to be malice involved in Sister McBride's decision.
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A pro-choice group, Catholics for Choice, says Bishop Olmsted's actions are problematic for all Catholic hospitals and their patients. "If those medical personnel are going to be intimidated, does that mean that those hospitals are no longer safe places because it's the bishop who dictates what happens or what doesn't happen as opposed to the people who actually know what they're doing and can act in the best interest of the woman and her family?" asks Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice.
Sources tell us the nun has since met requirements to have her excommunication lifted, but she has been reassigned at St. Joseph's, even though the hospital says it stands by her. Hospital officials said in a written statement to CNN that Sister McBride will fill another important role at the hospital.
Neither Sister McBride nor Bishop Olmsted agreed to talk us, by phone or on camera.