A woman is alive today in Phoenix, Arizona, and the “pro-life” Catholic Church is busily doling out its maximum punishments as a result.
The woman, whose name is not public, was 11 weeks pregnant. She was also seriously ill with pulmonary hypertension, a condition that does not go well with pregnancy – in fact, the combination is probably fatal. An Ethics Committee at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix convened to consider her case. The Committee, which included a Catholic nun named Sister Margaret McBride, determined that it was necessary to abort the fetus in order to save the life of the mother, and the procedure was quickly performed.
As a result, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, head of the Phoenix Diocese, publicly announced that Sister McBride is automatically excommunicated from the Church, its gravest punishment. What does excommunication mean? She has already been demoted within the hospital, and I imagine she will be expelled from her order of nuns. If she has earned any pension rights within the order, they will probably be lost as well, since churches are exempt from the laws that govern the pensions of everyone else. No good Catholic may eat, play, or do business with a moral leper who has been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. If she is inadvertently buried in a Catholic cemetery, she must be dug up as promptly as possible and moved away. Until she is moved away, the whole cemetery where she is buried is considered defiled.
Bishop Olmsted is not deviating from Catholic policy here. He is following it to the letter: Canon law 1398 says that “A person who procures a successful abortion incurs an automatic excommunication.” According to canon lawyer Colin Donovan, quoted in a Spero News article of July 2, 2008,
Conspirators who incur the excommunication can be defined as those who make access to the abortion possible. This certainly includes doctors and nurses who actually do it, husbands, family and others whose counsel and encouragement made it morally possible for the woman, and those whose direct practical support made it possible (financially, driving to the clinic etc.).
In a similar case in Brazil last year, a girl who had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather since the age of 6 became pregnant at the age of 9 – with twins. Neither the girl’s mother nor her doctors thought that either the girl or the fetuses had the slightest chance of surviving a pregnancy, so a legal abortion was performed. Both the mother and the doctors were then excommunicated. Interestingly, the father was not – church authorities specifically pointed out that his sin was not nearly as heinous as that of saving the child’s life.
Such a procedure could not have been legally performed in Chile, Nicaragua, or El Salvador, where the Church has succeeded in criminalizing abortion even where necessary to save the mother’s life.
For the Church, the survival of the fetus is irrelevant. Ivory tower scholastics pick out one of the 613 commandments from the Old Testament, “Thou shalt not kill,” and apply it with ruthless disregard for particular circumstances. For example, consider the ectopic pregnancy, in which a fetus begins to grow outside the womb. It cannot possibly survive, and allowing it to remain will surely kill the mother. A mid-20th century book by Father Patrick Finney called Moral Problems in Hospital Practice, that was officially approved with the imprimatur of the Church, was crystal clear:
Question 35. In a case of ectopic pregnancy, which has been diagnosed as a case of unruptured tubal pregnancy, is it lawful, before the term of viability, to remove the unruptured tube with the living fetus, as a means of forestalling the danger to the mother’s life, upon the rupture of the tube?
Answer. No, it is not lawful. Such a removal is a direct killing of the fetus, and is therefore forbidden.
This was directly in line with a 1902 pronouncement of the Congregation of the Holy Office in Rome.
In his 1948 classic American Freedom and Catholic Power, Paul Blanshard attempted to estimate from the available data how many American women died each year as a result of the Church’s insistence that abortion is not allowed even where necessary to save the life of the mother. Though his methods were far from precise, they were not unreasonable. He concluded that the number was approximately 1,000 dead mothers per year. If he’s right about that, as an average across the century, that would mean that more Americans died from this Church teaching than died in World War I and Vietnam combined. That figure, of course, is just for America, which has only a small fraction of the world’s Catholics.
Remind me: Why is the moral authority of the Catholic Church thought to be even slightly higher than zero?