Sister Margaret in a 2008 file photo. (CNS/J.D. Long-Garcia, The Catholic Sun
Driving home from work last Wednesday I heard a story on NPR (National Public Radio) about a nun, Sister Margaret McBride, who worked at a hospital in Arizona. Sister Margaret was excommunicated by a Catholic bishop in the Phoenix Diocese after she approved an abortion in order to save a critically ill woman’s life.
“She consented in the murder of an unborn child,” says the Rev. John Ehrich,the medical ethics director for the Diocese of Phoenix. “There are some situations where the mother may in fact die along with her child.”
“some situations…”??? What view of morality or justice sees shades of gray in the decision that was left to Sister Margaret McBride? How can religious doctrine deem the unborn child’s life worth more than that of a 27-year-old woman, and mother of four? In what code of ethics is it right to leave four children motherless, when her life could be saved by forfeiting the life of an 11-week old fetus? Who is served by excommunicating Sister McBride, a nun who has given decades of her life to her order, the Sisters of Mercy, in service to the church, to the communion of believers and to society? How do we view her banishment in comparison to the pedophile priests, none of whom have been excommunicated but who were allowed to continue their heinous ways under the protection of the Bishops?
Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s story on NPR: Nun Excommunicated for allowing abortion (May 19, 2010)
Sister Margaret McBride was excommunicated after allowing an abortion to be performed on a woman who doctors say would otherwise have died.
Last November, a 27-year-old woman was admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. She was 11 weeks pregnant with her fifth child, and she was gravely ill. According to a hospital document, she had “right heart failure,” and her doctors told her that if she continued with the pregnancy, her risk of mortality was “close to 100 percent.”
The patient, who was too ill to be moved to the operating room much less another hospital, agreed to an abortion. But there was a complication: She was at a Catholic hospital.
“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.
The woman survived. When Bishop Thomas J. Olsmsted heard about the abortion, he declared that McBride was automatically excommunicated – the most serious penalty the church can levy.
“She consented in the murder of an unborn child,” says the Rev. John Ehrich,the medical ethics director for the Diocese of Phoenix. “There are some situations where the mother may in fact die along with her child. But – and this is the Catholic perspective – you can’t do evil to bring about good. The end does not justify the means.”
Ehrich adds that under canon or church law, the nun should be expelled from her order, the Sisters of Mercy, unless the order can find an alternative penalty. Ehrich concedes that the circumstances of this case were “hard.”
“But there are certain things that we don’t really have a choice” about, he says. “You know, if it’s been done and there’s public scandal, the bishop has to take care of that, because he has to say, ‘Look, this can’t happen.’ ”
A Double Standard?
But according to the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer, the bishop “clearly had other alternatives than to declare her excommunicated.” Doyle says Olmsted could have looked at the situation, realized that the nun faced an agonizing choice and shown her some mercy. He adds that this case highlights a “gross inequity” in how the church chooses to handle scandal.
“In the case of priests who are credibly accused and known to be guilty of sexually abusing children, they are in a sense let off the hook,” Doyle says.
Doyle says no pedophile priests have been excommunicated. When priests have been caught, he says, their bishops have protected them, and it has taken years or decades to defrock them, if ever.
“Yet in this instance we have a sister who was trying to save the life of a woman, and what happens to her? The bishop swoops down [and] declares her excommunicated before he even looks at all the facts of the case,” Doyle says.
Ehrich agrees that sexual abuse can’t be tolerated. But he says neither can McBride’s actions.
“She said, ‘Yes, you can kill that unborn child.’ That’s a heinous act. And I’m not going to make a distinction between what’s worse. They’re both abhorrent,” Ehrich says.
Ehrich says the nun can be admitted back into the Catholic community by going to confession and repenting. McBride still works at the hospital in another position. Whether she is allowed to remain in her religious order, Erich says that is up to the Sisters of Mercy.