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May 21st, 2010
09:00 AM ET

Nun excommunicated for approving life-saving abortion

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.

Don't Miss: CNN's Belief Blog

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.

Filed under: Controversy
soundoff (49 Responses)
  1. J

    If I was Pope here's what would happen tomorrow morning;
    A. Every ordained person with the rank of Bishop or above would be required to tender their resignation immediately.
    B. Every Diocese would then hold an election to elect their next Bishop – with laity have 60 percent of the vote and ordained 40 percent.

    June 3, 2010 at 2:45 am |
  2. KathyW

    @Charlene – "she could not be taken to the OR" means she was too unstable for general anesthesia and she was too unstable for labor. She was in heart failure, unstable for surgery (general anesthesia would have killed her) – the ONLY option in that scenario is ending the life-threatening condition (pregnancy) under a local anesthetic – that is a therapeutic abortion.

    Pregnancy in a woman, already in heart failure in the setting of primary pulmonary hypertension, is fatal to the mother and the fetus. In the Catholic University I attended, I was taught, in the medical ethics courses I took, that in cases where continuation of pregnancy would result in the death of the mother, it was not wrong to save the mother, even if it meant ending the pregnancy. One of the illustrative cases was primary pulmonary hypertension.

    May 29, 2010 at 6:07 am |
  3. Maria Howard

    I am always against abortion because it is a sin to kill an innocent child.-'~

    May 25, 2010 at 1:52 pm |
  4. AnneS

    Apparently the church teaching has changed drastically since I was in Catholic high school over 30 years ago.

    Back then, we were specifically taught in our class on Catholic morality that not only would abortion be acceptable under these circumstances - there was a positive duty on the part of the mother and of others involved to do what was necessary to save the mother, who was already born. And that duty was increased by the fact that the mother had other children depending on her.

    This is a political decision on the part of the bishop and absolutely not correct morally.

    May 24, 2010 at 6:10 pm |
  5. nan

    Maybe the question isn't whether Sr. McBride should be excommunicated but whether Catholic Hospitals are capable of providing reliable quality health care. Do you want your medical decisions based on medical principals or religious dogma? I believe when people go to the hospital they take for granted that medical decisions will be based on science and what is in their best interests. I do not think patients go to the hospital expecting God to intercede on their behalf or to die if he does not. They trust their doctor's medical training and medical judgement. If, on admission to the hospital patients were informed medical care could be decided not by science but by religious beliefs they might hesitate to trust their lives and the lives of their loved ones to such an arbitrary system. In my 49 years I never thought that admission to a catholic hospital was an abdication of my right to make medical decisions for myself. While I respect catholic hospitals' right to refuse to perform elective abortion for the termination of unwanted pregnancies, clearly this case was different. That the Bishop has the arrogance to believe this patient would be better off dead is galling beyond belief. Is he going to excommunicate that patient as well? After all, it was her decision to save her own life at the expense of an 11 week old fetus. How selfish of that woman to put the well being of her 4 young children above the needs of that unborn child? Clearly becoming a martyr and leaving behind 4 orphans to further the pro-life beliefs of the church would have been a better decision, yes?
    In the interests of full-disclosure, I am a life-long Catholic with a very strong religious faith. However, God gave us free will and that means the right to make decisions about our own lives. The clergy has no right to supercede their judgement above my own. Priests and Bishops are religious advisors, not masters. In the end, we stand before God and answer for OUR own actions, not the actions we forced upon others.

    May 24, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
  6. JoAnn Perlman

    Is it a fact that the mother was as ill as stated and already had 4 children? Under these circumstances, one might wonder why she would become pregnant for a 5th time?
    My grandmother was influenced by the Jesuits in early 1900 rural Montana to have more children. The outcome was that my grandmother died and my mother's education ended at age 10 when she took over the job of mothering her 4 siblings.
    How very sad this is, as it did not have to happen. In my humble opinion, I see no place for the Catholic Church in the parishioner's bedroom.

    May 24, 2010 at 6:25 am |
  7. Louise

    It's not just abortion and prenatal care that is problematic at catholic hospitals. As a 66 year old woman with a Do Not Resuscitate order I live in fear that, in an emergency, the ambulance will drop me at the local catholic hospital that would refuse to honor my wishes NOT to be resuscitated. Why? Because the local bishop has decreed that ALL POSSIBLE medical means MUST be used to prolong life at catholic hospitals. This is in direct conflict with Medicare policy that says ALL hospitals must honor end of life choices! If these hospitals are to continue to receive Medicare payments they MUST change these policies or stop accepting the money! As an atheist and vehement ant-religionist I will no longer tolerate having my medical decisions second guessed by some idiotic "man in black"!!! Keep your religion OUT of my laws and life.!!!!

    May 24, 2010 at 1:06 am |
  8. Jane J

    Oh, for heaven's sake people! An 11 week fetus is not going to survive but a mom with hearth disease and 4 living kids probably will. Women should not be required to make their decisions based solely on a church that has the problems that have recently been in the headlines and shoved under the table. I applaude the nun and hope that the church will take a good look at their treatment of women and their handling of pedophile priests. Pedophilia is a crime and so is the cover-up!

    May 23, 2010 at 9:22 pm |
  9. Steve

    That nun should leave the church as I have done and become GOD'S SNIPER. I work in the field for GOD I have no church since my Lutheran church seems to praise the Catholic church I stopped going. Jesus said wherever there's TWO or More gathered he would be there. So I stay in the field, I only seen Jesus in the church once and man was he mad at all that was going on in that building. I hope that nun continues to work with others who need her.

    May 23, 2010 at 8:39 am |
  10. mani

    How completely sad. The nun was just trying to save this woman's life. Both the baby and the mother were going to die if this pregnancy had gone to term and the Bishop is unhappy because one of them, the mother, lived?

    May 22, 2010 at 11:36 pm |
  11. Daralyn

    If the mother was in such rough shape as previously stated, 'Charlene", then they most likely went through those scenarios. Above it says she couldnt even be moved to a different room she was in such bad shape because of her heart. Perform an emergency c-section, which has a long and painful recovery, and put a body thats almost dead into defense mode? Come on. Opine when your aware of the circumstances. An 11 week old fetus, the mother going through inducing labor when shes about to die.. Sigh.. Those 4 other kids at home would be okay so long as a being without any chance of life had respect, right?

    May 22, 2010 at 5:10 pm |
  12. Brian

    This is a sad day. The Catholic Church has become lost in itsquest for purity and what they call truth. The Church and the Pope are unable to be fully honest with themselves, and with their followers. However it is the followers I blame for not standing up in the pews and showing their disgust for the pedophilia and cover-up, and their disgust for this travesty of faith and logic bestowed not only to this Mother but others around her including this Nun. Many of them including some of my friends are too busy collecting Cathloic points to get their kids into Catholic high Schools, and themselves into heaven to think question and investigate!! Shame

    May 22, 2010 at 11:59 am |
  13. Ginike

    This church has no use for women, other than as baby-making machines. They don't care about this woman's life. And the nun who valued her life is smacked down by the male hierarchy. Keep in mind NONE of the male priests accused of molesting children has been excommunicated!

    We live in the United States of America, abortion is legal here. If a woman and her doctors choose an abortion to save her life and the hospital refuses a legal procedure, they should be charged with manslaughter as far as I'm concerned.

    May 22, 2010 at 10:22 am |
  14. gerald hunt

    Lots missing in this story. What was the medical condition of concern? Tubals are allowed to be treated with the unintended consequence of the child's death for instance. Why does the press not tell us what the condition is. The intent cannot be to take the life of the child. One of the conditions of her reinstatement would be that she repent so it seems the nun decided what she did was wrong.

    May 22, 2010 at 9:15 am |
  15. thessalonian

    If the abortion was solely for aborting the child the action was appropriate. The intended cause of a medical procedure CANNOT be to abort the child. They do not tell what the actual medical reasons for the abortion were. why did they not tell us what the medical reasons were so that we could make a judgement. Instead they just point the finger at the bishop. One of the conditions of reinstatement would be to repent and so it seems the nun came around and agreed she made a mistake. There is clearly more here we don't know.

    May 22, 2010 at 9:08 am |
  16. Anand

    First of all i'm a med student, so for all you morons out there that think this was a cover up by the doctors to "kill the baby" you are retarded. there are instances when the mother's life is in jeopardy and the best or only solution would be to deliver the baby (in this 11 week old cases, he/she would surely died). or sometimes when delivery is not possible you have to terminate the pregnancy. so unless you are a medical doctor specifically a OB/GYN who have to go through more years of school/training than most people in two lifetimes, shut up. I don't care how much you read on wikipedia.

    2nd thing of all, i'm not out to bash the catholic church. i'm an eastern orthodox christian, which is much older than roman catholicsm and we follow the teachings of the early church fathers. In a situation when the mothers life is in danger and terminating the pregnancy whether "directly or indirectly" will increase the risk of survival (and that is known only by doctors), it should be done, end of story. That is the view of the earliest/oldest christianity out there. The nun was right in her decision and the bishop WAS WRONG in exocommunicating her in the 1st place, regardless of whether he reversed it. It should not have even been an issue of debate. This shows that some (not all) bishops/leaders in the catholic church have got their theologic principles/priorities out of order.

    May 21, 2010 at 10:29 pm |
  17. Nancy

    @Jessica: Is this your first pregnancy? If not... I have two children and know how much they need me and love me and how much they would lose if I died. I could never consciously risk my life in favor of an 11 week old fetus that might not even make it to term even if I lived. Maybe you could live with the conscious decision to risk depriving your children of their mother, but I couldn't. If it's your first pregnancy... well then you are freer to risk it all for your child. I never feared my own death until I had children who would be devastated by it.

    @Charlene: Are you telling me that inducing labor or doing a C-section to take a fetus that is ABSOLUTELY not capable of surviving outside the womb is NOT abortion? In technical medical terms, any premature death of a fetus, intended or otherwise, is an abortion. Inducing labor prematurely kills the fetus. Saying otherwise only twists the facts so that you may claim the moral high ground. It's like Bill Clinton saying that he tried marijuana but didn't inhale.

    May 21, 2010 at 6:07 pm |
  18. Erica

    Before you comment on something, please make sure you understand the fact!!!......When will your people learn that????....

    Charlene, you are correct and I think the Bishop responded correctly.

    May 21, 2010 at 4:43 pm |
  19. Lisa

    @Jessica, No your life is not more valuable than your fetus, but as you are already here and can breathe on your own you should be saved before the child. The fetus' life is also not more valuable than the four other children she had at home that need a mother. Speaking as a mother , the decision is an easy one. I would never leave my child without a mother for the sake of an non-viable fetus.

    @ Charlene, To put a woman through the pain and risk of induced labor or a C-Section for the sake of a non-viable fetus is irresponsible.Any health care professional that is not clear headed and rational enough to make that distinction ,should go work as a school nurse passing out Tylenol and leave the actual nursing to the folks with scientific minds not muddled by ancient superstitions. Not all woman feel guilt over being told, it's you or the {non-viable} fetus. We feel bad and then move on, thankful we don't have the Pope deciding our medical procedures for us.
    I was raised Catholic but I do feel there is no place for Catholic Hospitals in this country. A health care provider's personal morals and religious beliefs should never infringe on the patients right to quality care, if you can not put your personal beliefs aside find another form of employment. The very idea that you would condone putting a woman through the risk of a c-section to soothe your conscience is unethical. If that same woman requested a c-section at full term you would be screaming that she should not be allowed it simply for convenience. The Catholic church proves once again that it considers woman nothing more than human incubators, with no real value as human beings.

    May 21, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  20. Jeannie

    I believe the Catholic church views' are just as warped as some in the Islamic World. In both religions, women are second-rate humans, to be held under the thumb of the men and to be sacrificed so a unviable 11-week old collection of cells ... what?... has a chance at survival?... No, cause it can't survive at 11 weeks. I am saddened by the fact that many communities have no choice but to go to Catholic hospitals. I wish there were real choice out there; I'd never set foot in a Catholic Hospital or clinic because I would be afraid that I would not be given ALL options available to me, even if it's against the belief of the nurses and physicians. My body; my choice. Not theirs. This is where religion and govt have no business – in my life.

    May 21, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
  21. LRJnVA

    Another disgrace by the Catholic Church. Recent decisions made by the Catholic Church has done more to reduce the flock. Though I still consider myself Catholic my donations now go to a multi denominational church. The church can chose to be bigotted and short sited and I can chose to support another church. Abortion is a horrible thing when done for convienance but is necessary in certain circumstances.

    May 21, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  22. Charlene

    I have been an ICU nurse in a Catholic hospital dealing with patients whose pregnancy needed to be "terminated" to save the life/health of tthe mother. Inducing premature labor or early C-section is morally preferable to an abortion. The baby can be named, baptized, photographed, touched, given an APGAR score, oxygen, and dignity with a delivery (even at 11 wks). The recovering mother is better to have grief and told "I'm sorry your baby died" as opposed to guilt with the attitude of "kill the baby to save the mother".
    This nun surely knew how to handle this type of case in a Catholic hospital, so this is probably a pro-abortion stunt. At minimum the nun should have transferred the patient to a different hospital. The media has fallen into the pro-abortion trap and not reported how it should have been handled in a Catholic hospital.

    May 21, 2010 at 2:36 pm |
  23. Bemused

    I see. So it's okay to abort the fetus to save the life of the mother as long as you do it "by accident" not in the course of a life-saving abortion. That doesn't seem a moral guidance. It seems like a pathetic excuse for it.

    May 21, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
  24. Jessica

    @Anthony- the key to that difference is that it is an innocent life. Not an adult who is fully capable of defending themselves and making choices for themselves. Not saying it is a 100% clear cut distinction when you are just dropping random bombs, but that is a discussion for another day.

    Although I support the church's moral position this, I think it falls under the category of something that will be between that nun and God- the church doesn't have the right to excommunicate her. IF she committed a sin, she will be held accountable for that. It seems she made her decision in good faith. Fortunately, I am a Baptist and know that God's grace would cover even a situation like this.

    I am 12 weeks pregnant- I would allow the doctors to try to save my life but would not have a straight up abortion... if the baby was lost in the process, I would accept that but I would not choose to end my child's life. My life is not more valuable than my child's. I would fight until my dying breath to give him/her life. Miracles happen and doctors can be wrong. Call me crazy, I'm okay with it.

    May 21, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  25. Ken

    The story is slanted to make it appear the bishop deliberately went out of his way to punish her. But by the act itself, she automatically excommunicated herself without the bishop having to do anything. She knew this and proceeded with the decision anyway. She should present her case with the facts to the bishop to be reunited with the church.

    May 21, 2010 at 1:42 pm |
  26. ladymrs.theN

    i understand that catholics oppose abortion, but why sacriface two lives when one can be saved? this nun should not be excommunicated, she is innocent

    May 21, 2010 at 1:06 pm |
  27. Laura P. Schulman, MD

    Let's see...if the fetus had not been aborted, the mother would have died– and so would the fetus, since at 11 weeks gestation there is absolutely no chance of the fetus living outside the womb. So does this mean according to the Church, that it's better to kill two people than one?

    May 21, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  28. Ella

    This article fails to mention –

    The woman had 4 children at home already.

    She had right heart failure and was so gravely ill that she could not be moved to the operating room, let alone to another hospital.

    This information was gleaned from the NPR report. Having more information clarifies the situation the sister faced.

    May 21, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  29. Deacon Jim Heyman

    I feel sorry for people like Jacqueline, we have done her a great disservice by not adequately chatechizing her in her formative years. We sometimes spend too much time teaching our children how to memorize prayers and not near enouch time teaching them how to live their faith. How to make life decisions based on the teachings of the Church and the Word of God!
    I am not a moral theologian or but the information that I was given listed the procedure performed on the woman in question was an elective procedure, which I beleive would lead a person to believe that an option or options existed that may not have directly lead to the death of the fetus!
    These types of decisions are always extremly difficult to live with afterwards. We should maybe spend more time praying that the mother is able to live with the decision made to abort her fetus in order to save her life. I'm certain she is going to go through some very difficult times emotionally.
    The bishop made a correct decision in this case, I feel . God bless.

    May 21, 2010 at 10:31 am |
  30. Susan S. Odum

    So the catholic church would rather lose two lives than save one? This is just another man made law. How hipprocritical of them when they turned their heads and a deaf ear on all the priest and bishops who were molesting children. The church just sent them to another parish to distroy the lives of more innocent children. Didn't they realize those children died inside? What about their death? I was raised catholic, went to catholic school, but as an adult I became frustrated with all their man made laws, changing from year to year. And they wonder why their congregaion is in such decline?

    May 21, 2010 at 10:11 am |
  31. joseph

    Jacqueline, you are not alone. The hierarchy of the roman church has lost its way and demands that all catholics be loyal to them. The laity have no power, so there is nothing to stop that collection of twisted hypocrites from doing as they please. Check out the Episcopalians or Lutherans. You will find many of the rituals are familiar. But the people are not expected to grovel at the feet of some petty dictator in rome.

    May 21, 2010 at 10:07 am |
  32. CaliforniaCatholic

    After reading the comments posted – including the one who apparently knows Sr. McBride – it is rather self-evident those who are condemning the Bishop (and the Catholic Church) for the nun's excommunication are unaware of Canon Law, linear logic, and the spirituality of the Church. All three are intertwoven in the Bishop's decision. It's sad educated people (many of them Catholic) are unable to make this distinction.

    May 21, 2010 at 10:05 am |
  33. chenchiheshang

    I think no matter how appealing and 'correct' the bishop' argument is, he definitely underestimates the pressure and pain the nun was suffering.
    He might be thinking that the nun is simply a utilitarian and has betrayed the Catholic value, when she made the choice. But I am wondering what would he do, if he were in that situation.

    I was very impressed by the american nuns' insistence in the health care reform debate. And I hope there are more nun's voice and 'power' in Catholic church, rather than the pedophiles and protector of pedophiles

    May 21, 2010 at 9:55 am |
  34. lisa k

    Thank God for Sister McBride! In addition to requiring the church to report it's pedophile priests to the POLICE – looks like we need to keep a close on eye on what goes on in their hospitals. A very scary organization!

    May 21, 2010 at 9:52 am |
  35. Jacqueline Permenter

    I am a Roman Catholic who has walked away from the Church and the people to control it, the priests, nuns, bishiop and the Pope due to the horrendous and hypocritical way they have orgnized and run this church. I have not, however, walked away from God. As for this horrific article about the way the Catholic Church stands in judgement of people, especially women, who they could care less if they died as long as the fetus is not touched, I will never let a Cathlic hospital and the people in touch me. I do not undrerstand their beliefs and will never agree with their abortion policy.

    I loved my faith and my church, that is until the Vatican and Pedofiles who call themselves priests and nuns began to come to light. How dare they tell me I have sinned when they have committed such attrocities! I live in Arizona and shame on Bishop Olmstead!

    I am looking elsewhere for a church, maybe Episcopalian. Sorry if I did not spell that right.

    May 21, 2010 at 9:45 am |
  36. Anthony

    Someone please enlighten me. Sister McBride is excommunicated for attempting to save a patients life. To take the life of the unborn child is a sin. Okay, I've got it. My question is this. If taking a life is a sin, why isn't it a sin in war?

    May 21, 2010 at 9:40 am |
  37. Beverly

    Unlike many of the responders, I have met & talked with Sr. McBride and seen what a caring wonderful person she is. I'm sure this was a very difficult ethical and religious decision to make. However, she had the medical facts, unlike people who are responding and don't know the circumstances. I am saddened that the Bishop decided to excommunicate her.

    May 21, 2010 at 9:33 am |
  38. Pat

    Abusive male priests commit a little indiscretion according to the male dominated church. Women, on the other hand, are not to be forgiven, but excommunicated. This just shows the low opinion of women held by this church. Sometimes abortion is the only solution.

    May 21, 2010 at 9:31 am |
  39. Diane Young

    Issues in the real world are not black and white but often gray. How could any moral person choose to let this woman die under these circumstances? Without the abortion both mother and fetus would likely not survive. If that is "God's will", then I'll choose reason instead of religion.

    May 21, 2010 at 9:25 am |
  40. Michael Armstrong Sr.

    @ Dean well said ironic isnt it .

    May 21, 2010 at 9:23 am |
  41. Jim

    There's almost certainly more to this story; "automatically excommunicated" implies that there was no actual decision reached on the merits of the case, but rather that someone in the bishop's office released a statement to the effect that the nun's actions meant that she was excommunicated. It's also hard to determine from what is reported how a nun on an ethics panel could be held responisble for the actions of the hospital administration–someone above her who was also responsible to the diocese, since this was a Catholic hospital, actually made the decision to proceed. This looks like a case created to focus media attention.

    May 21, 2010 at 9:13 am |
  42. Sheri Lickteig

    What would Jesus do? It is not possible to believe that Jesus would sit by and watch the young woman die when her life could be saved by the medical procedures. Life is not full of easy answers. Allowing the 11 week fetus to be sacrificed to save the woman's life was the correct and moral choice.

    May 21, 2010 at 9:12 am |
  43. Dean

    What a dichotomy the Catholic church is.

    Priest as sex offenders – quietly moved to another parish or position in the Vatican.

    A nun saves a mother's life – immediately excommunicated.


    May 21, 2010 at 9:07 am |
  44. CaliforniaCatholic

    Sister McBride should know that one may never directly kill any living being; if the baby dies while trying to actively save the mother, that's one thing. It's a subtle, but very important, distinction. Bishop Olmstead is correct

    May 21, 2010 at 9:02 am |
  45. Belle Lehman

    The nun should be congratulated for her decision! I would not want any hospital employee, doctor, nurse - or for that matter lawyer or judge or anyone in a command position - to use their own personal religious beliefs to interfere with a life and death decision involving another.

    May 21, 2010 at 9:02 am |
  46. Charles Barbour

    Catholic Church business is their business and no-one elses. The woman in question always has the option of changing hospitals and religion. God hears the voices of all Christians, and communion is a Holy Sacrament, not a religious rite and is administered by many Christian denominations. If your religious beliefs are not meeting your spiritual needs, then move on.

    May 21, 2010 at 8:59 am |
  47. Claire

    Sister did the correct and right thing, talk to the parties involved. Bishop has no medical knowledge and should not intimidate the hospital. His role is to keep praying for souls, both dead and alive.

    May 21, 2010 at 8:55 am |
  48. Lafenmom

    Bishop Olmsted said, in a statement:

    "I am a man, cannot give birth; I am a priest, cannot be married or know a woman, therefore I have no knowledge of this subject and voice in this argument".

    May 21, 2010 at 8:52 am |
  49. Michael Armstrong Sr.

    At least theres one smart person in that mixed up church .

    May 21, 2010 at 8:51 am |