Healthcare News & Insights

Should Catholic nun have approved patient’s abortion?

A pregnant woman with a life-threatening condition, a by-the-rules bishop and a nun trying to do the best for a patient added up to a tragic situation that’s still playing out six months later.

In late 2009, a woman 11 weeks into her pregnancy presented at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. Doctors quickly determined that the only way to save her life was to terminate the pregnancy. After consulting with the patient, they contacted Sister Margaret McBride, a hospital administrator and the on-call member of the hospital’s ethics committee.

McBride gave the OK to perform the abortion. Whether or not she should have has been the subject of much debate.

While the termination of a pregnancy in this situation would be routine at many hospitals, St. Joseph’s follows the ethical directives set forth by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. According to those guidelines, a pregnancy can’t be terminated even to save the life of the mother. However, treatments such as chemo can be given, even if they’re likely to terminate the pregnancy.

The head of the Phoenix diocese, Bishop Thomas Olmstead, found out about the surgery after the fact, and sided with the “shouldn’t have” camp. McBride, the highest-ranking member of the Sisters of Mercy, was immediately excommunicated and reassigned to another department in the hospital.

Olmstead said via a statement, “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.”

Others at the hospital backed McBride’s decision. Suzanne Pfister, a hospital vice president, issued a brief statement on behalf of the hospital and the order, saying “In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother’s life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy.”

Due to privacy regulations, there has been no update on the patient’s condition. The hospital has not said what, if any, actions were taken involving the doctors who performed the surgery.

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  1. Some interesting Catholic doctrine on this issue that I think even Church officials ignore at times…(source is…can’t vouch 100% about the validity of the site, but looks to be out of Australia and uses direct quotations from Church officials to justify the interpretations.)

    I What if the life of the mother or of the child to be born is in danger?

    “Never and in no case has the Church taught that the life of the child must be preferred to that of the mother. It is erroneous to put the question with this alternative: either the life of the child or that of the mother. No, neither the life of the mother nor that of the child can be subjected to an act of direct suppression. In the one case as in the other, there can be but one obligation: to make every effort to save the lives of both, of the mother and of the child.

    It is one of the finest and most noble aspirations of the medical profession to search continually for new means of ensuring the life of both mother and child. But if, notwithstanding all the progress of science, there still remain, and will remain in the future, cases in which one must reckon with the death of the mother, when the mother wills to bring to birth the life that is within her and not destroy it in violation of the command of God – Thou shalt not kill – nothing else remains for the man, who will make every effort till the very last moment to help and save, but to bow respectfully before the laws of nature and the dispositions of divine Providence.” Pius XII, Allocution to Large Families, November 26, 1951. (15)

    II And if she is the mother of a large family?

    “But, it is objected, the life of the mother, especially the mother of a large family, is of incomparably greater value than that of a child not yet born. The application of the theory of the equivalation of values to the case which occupies us has already been accepted in juridical discussions. The reply to this harrowing objection is not difficult. The inviolability of the life of an innocent human being does not depend on its greater or lesser value. It is already more than ten years since the Church formally condemned the destruction of life considered to be ‘without value’; and whosoever knows the sad events that preceded and provoked that condemnation, whosoever is able to weigh the direct consequences that would result, from measuring the inviolability of innocent life according to its value, can well appreciate the motives that determined that condemnation.

    Besides, who can judge with certainty which of the two lives is in fact the more precious? Who can know what path that child will follow and to what heights of achievement and perfection he may reach? Two greatnesses are being compared here, one of them being an unknown quantity.” Pius XII, Allocution to Large Families, Nov. 26, 1951. (16)

    III What if, in order to save the life of the mother, independently of her pregnant condition, a surgical intervention or a therapeutic treatment is necessary which would have as an accidental consequence, in no way desired nor intended, the death of the fetus?

    “Deliberately We have always used the expression ‘direct attempt on the life of an innocent person,’ ‘direct killing.’ Because if, for example, the saving of the life of the future mother, independently of her pregnant condition, should urgently require a surgical act or other therapeutic treatment which would have as an accessory consequence, in no way desired nor intended, but inevitable, the death of the fetus, such an act could no longer be called a direct attempt on an innocent life. Under these conditions the operation can be lawful, like other similar medical interventions – granted always that a good of high worth is concerned, such as life, and that it is not possible to postpone the operation until after the birth of the child, nor to have recourse to other efficacious remedies.” Pius XII, Allocution to Large Families, Nov. 26, 1951. (17)

  2. It amazes me that a fetus that has not yet lived and could not live withoug the Mother must be allowed every opportunity, even at the cost of the Mother’s life which could end up killing them both. God forbid this woman be given the opportunity to live and possibly have children in the future or maybe adopt an unwanted child or give a loving home to an abused child instead of having to die due to pregnancy. Who is playing God in this situation?

  3. A.J. LAW says:

    Tricky question and depends on her faith (nuns) and the faith of the mother. I don’t believe in abortion even to save the mother but I would never make that decision for someone else. Obviously the patient and the nun didn’t have enough faith in God to belive he would see them through the pregnancy
    without it being fatal.

  4. David Harrison says:

    The Nun should be reinstated.
    Bishop Thomas Olmstead has the ethics of the Taliban and other fanatics.
    He is the one who should be excommunicated.

    IF this fails to occur, NO more federal funds should go to a hospital which follows the fanatical and inhumane ethical directives of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. What about separation of church and state?

    The idea that the mother must die so that an 11 week fetus might live, is in ignorance of basic biology.
    It is a case of religious fanatics dictating what should be an obvious ethical decision.

  5. Was the transfer of the patient to a different hospital ever discussed? In the metropolitan area of Phoenix, there are other venues to care for this sick lady. Where the moral/Catholic issue would not have come into play. I’d like to know if the St. Joseph Ethics Committee considered this?

    • Carol Katarsky says:

      Kathy, I have not seen that issue discussed, but my impression is that they didn’t have time to transfer her. This was a case where something had to be done very quickly.

  6. I am a Catholic, and I ask What on earth are these Catholics thinking. They do not deal with parasites like Bernard Law..instead they hide him away, He had Killed more spirits then we know, and they excommunicate a nun who was logically and spiritually facilitating the woman to make her decision. Ours is not an evil God, the humans who so called run the church are running it right into the ground. May God Bless us all

    I know he blesses Sister McBride, we need more women leading the church.

  7. Margaret McBride did the right thing. it is also a good thing she was excommunicated, she now has the opportunity to be free of the silly religion.
    Hospitals should not be allowed under religious organizations.
    For the followers of the religious organzations, tend to impose their beliefs on the vulnerable sick.

  8. To A.J.
    If unwavering faith in God is really all that is needed to ensure that a condition not be fatal then we all wasted a lot of time in medical school when we should have simply been praying instead. This patient was faced with what will likely be the most difficult decision of her life and really doesn’t need someone else’s personal belief system/religion imposed upon her.

  9. that is the reason I am no longer a catholic the church this is about the life of the patient who is a
    mother to raise her family who are they to play god with that mother they don’t play god when they
    play with little boys this is why the church is failing and they know it maybe this world will be free from
    this money making machine thats haunts us by throwing fear to every catholic remember most wars
    were started over religion isn’t that funny the muslin, catholics, christian,jews,even today are still at
    odds if there was a God do you think he or she really wanted to see this if you believe in god then
    just be a good person and you will not have problem don’t look for a reward because that doesn’t exist
    being true to yourself is all that matters and the world around you will be your haven

  10. Based upon the data supplied, I believe that Sister McBride did the correct thing and the Bishop was wrong. His action is one of the reasons that I left the Catholic church 40 years ago. He is playing God instead of consoling the woman and family in the loss of her child. Each of the above individuals have good, sound valuable points that I am sure the bishop will dismiss and fall back on this is the “church’s belief,” which is a basic guideline that will always have exceptions in these types of situations. I can see the bishop going as far as stating, creating a policy, that he would make the final decision in all future cases of abortion.

  11. If the baby would have been spared it would not have lived at that point in the gestation period. From what is presented here the mother and the baby would have died had the baby’s life been spared.

    I certainly understand the Catholic Church trying to save lives of unborn babies but trying to save this baby would have taken another life that supported the baby’s life. This one is a no brainer in saving life. One life saved is better than two lives lost.

    It is cruel to excommunicate this nun. She made a decision based on the facts. I’m sure this was one of the hardest yet straight forward decisions to make.

    The Catholic Church needs to be objective here not subjective.

  12. A.J. LAW says:


  13. Brenda Bennett says:

    I do not believe in abortion. However, an 11 week old fetus could not survive without the mother. If you let the mother die, you are killing the fetus as well as aborting it. So what are you going to do?
    Toss a coin. No, this Nun did the correct thing, even though abortion is against her faith. She knew that the fetus could not survive without the mother and that, in this case, the mother should have been saved. I suggest if you believe the mother should be saved at all cost, don’t go to a Catholic hospital. Under no circumstances would I allow my daughter to go to a Catholic hospital because I believe in the mother first and she can live and have another baby. I do not sanction abortion for people who just do not want the baby and/or find it an incovenience. Plain and simple, this Nun should be reinstated and applauded for her quick thinking and saving a life.

  14. It seems to me:
    In the case at hand, performing the abortion is not about preemptive action to kill the baby to save the mother, but of self defense–of the pregnant woman. The baby, albeit unknowing, has no right to take the mother’s life any more than anyone of us has the right to take the life of another. However, the mother does have the right to defend her life against someone who is immanently threatening her life. Just so, a police officer is justified to defend his/her life against someone shooting at him/her by shooting back–not necessarily to kill but to defend. In the case of the pregnant woman, it is not the death of the baby wanted or sought, per se, but the defense of the mother. Unfortunately, in our limitations as humans, sometimes we are unable to come up with a way to save both. In the Ethical and REligious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERD),4th edition, Directive 47, regarding “operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure…” speaks at least implicitly, to this issue of the right of self defense.

  15. If it really means that mom’s life is in jeopardy, then of course the only reasonable thing to do is terminate the pregancy. Any other consideration reflects the lunacy that typically ensues whenever religion is insinuated into otherwise rational decision making.

  16. DrDrDaddeo says:

    Bless you Sister McBride, for your kind heart and sound mind, even when faced by fanatics like “Father” Olmstead who use Catholocism’s lifelong brainwashing and their own axe-wielding threats of excommunication to keep you from doing what is biologically appropriate. After seventeen years of formal training and life as a Catholic, I finally deprogrammed myself from those pious zealots and have happily moved on as a very satisfied pantheist. I have subsequently even used an excommunicated Catholic priest/judge to marry my wife and I, and he presided over a beautiful, inspiring ceremony. Consider yourself luck to be free of nutcases like Olmstead, and the long, wierd arm of the Catholic church.

  17. Nida R. says:

    I was born in Manila to a faith-filled practicing Catholic parents. My parents already have 5 children at the time and I would make the 6th. For whatever reason which to date have not been fully explained to me, my mother was paralyzed when she was carrying me. It came to the delivery time when my parents were told by the doctor to choose between my mother’s life or save mine. My parents, being the strong faith-filled people they were, told the doctor to do what he had to do and God will do the rest. I am 55 years old now, and have been blessed with all kinds of life experiences. I am a Masters Level Social Worker/Care Manager working for two great hospitals here in Miami. I had been a religious myself doing retreat ministry prior to returning to school. For the past 9-10 years, I had been the primary caretaker for my father who lived to be 97 years old despite having 6 other siblings. He died 5 months ago. It was during one of my counseling sessions with my Spiritual Director then as a religious that I heard the term applied to me, were almost an aborted baby….” I do not espouse to be pious or righteous or even “fanatical” but this knowledge only lifted me up and made me evermore grateful about the gift of life.

  18. Rita D. says:

    I think the nun made the correct decision to allow the abortion. The life of the mother has value and if she dies the infant is left without a mother causing more suffering. And it sounds like the infant may not have lived either if the mother’s illness had progressed. Save one life at least. I am in the healthcare profession as well. I have not practiced in the Catholic faith for many years but I try to live a good life and treat others with respect. At times I wish I had a church that I shared fellowship with others. When I hear of all of the sex abuse that occurred for years in the Church and how poorly that was handled so that children continued to be abused for years — it does make me far less interested in ever returning to the Catholic Church. I am beginning to learn more about Buddishm.

  19. AJ… It amazes me that you place a Mother and fetuse’s fate only in faith, especially in this situation. We have been given knowledge and the ability to learn or perform skills (such as saving lives) over time. Maybe this was given to us by a supreme being or maybe this ability evolved over the ages through learning, practice and applying scientific principles. The fact remains (no matter your belief system) that no one has the right to withhold treatment based on the religious beliefs of others. I have cared for a young Mother who was forced to carry her child through to term. She was the victim of rape and her Mother was so bound to her “faith” that she removed the choice of life from her child and lost them both. Her daughter was 15. I do not and will not believe that any God requires a woman to die so a fetus may live. If the Catholic church is so insistent that women must carry children to term, then the Bishops, Cardinals, and Pope should move their butts out of the gold plated Vatican and use it to care for the unwanted and abused children that will soon follow the implementation of their views. I cannot believe a religion run by men and misguided women are allowed to impose their religious views on people while they are helpless and afraid. I agree with a previous entry… get religious organizations out of health care.


  1. […] topic hits several hot button issues, including the morality of abortion and patients’ right to treatment plans which health providers don’t agree […]