Religious Sanction on Healthcare

St Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, lost its designation as a Catholic hospital in December because it carried out an abortion in November 2009 to save the life of a 27 year old woman with severe pulmonary hypertension.

The mother of four children was three months into her pregnancy, when, considering the risk to the life of the mother, the pregnancy was terminated after discussion with all the involved parties. The response of the ecclesiasts was a little radical:

Bishop Thomas Olmstead, head of the Phoenix diocese, excommunicated Sister Margaret McBride, a nun on the hospital’s ethics committee who agreed to the abortion, and removed the hospital’s Catholic designation.

The question is whether this is a reasonable thing to do. The reverend Bishop was correct to point out that both the lives should have been saved. But in a case where the life of the mother was in imminent danger and there was no way the pregnancy could be carried to term without significant danger to the life of the mother, it was medically and ethically correct to terminate the pregnancy to save the life that could be saved at that point of time. Although I am not privy to the exact details of the management of the case, the Bishop’s hints that instead of treating the Pulmonary Hypertension that threatened the life of the mother, termination of pregnancy was an abomination. The question whether there was adequate medical management of the case is a legitimate one, but seeing that the decision to abort is always a major one, I would ass+u+me that best possible efforts were made to have continued the pregnancy. If such efforts had failed, I see no wrong in termination of the pregnancy.

But whatever be the case, the manner in which the Church lashed out at the hospital is indeed worrisome. In a throwback to the medieval culture of complete control over social parameters, this incident is really shocking, that too in a nation like the US, which boasts of religious tolerance and secular outlook. This raises the very legitimate question whether hospitals with religious affiliations owe a greater allegiance to the Church and its ways rather than giving the best possible care to the patient. Given the radical stand the Church has taken on several reproductive issues, including on the use of condoms, this seems to be a difficult line to tread.

The hospital deserves credit for standing their ground on the count and not bowing to the unreasonable demands of the clergy (a blanket ban on all future abortions). While I am not particularly murderous by nature, I consider the saving of the life of the mother a greater priority in this case. Had the church had its way, the four children would have (potentially) been left motherless. Is that any less a tragedy than the justified medical termination of the life of a 11 week old fetus?


Amidst all this furor what has gone unnoticed that in this day and age, a woman is going for her fifth pregnancy. In the developed world. What is happening to family planning? Isn’t this an evidence of a pretty ill public health system as well? Just something to ponder…


Tanne, J. (2010) US hospital loses Catholic designation after performing a lifesaving abortion. BMJ, 341(dec29 2), c7434-c7434. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.c7434 


One thought on “Religious Sanction on Healthcare

  1. if it was possible to save both the life of the unborn child and that of the mother, I commend the decision of the removal hospital’s designation as a catholic hospital.But if that was the only possible way out to save the life of the woman,then I rather take side with the hospital’s decision to abort the pregnancy.

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