Nun excommunicated for approving life-saving abortion

Sister Margaret McBride has been demoted from her position at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, AZ after participating in the approval of an abortion for a critically ill patient in 2009. McBride was part of the hospital ethics committee that approved an abortion for a patient with pulmonary hypertension, which can be made fatal by pregnancy. Hospital officials say the procedure was necessary to save the patient’s life.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, the leader of the Phoenix archdiocese, said McBride was “automatically excommunicated” for acting to save a woman’s life. What role Olmsted played in McBride’s demotion is unknown.

Olmsted condemned the hospital’s decision in a statement that blatantly defies logic:

I am gravely concerned by the fact that an abortion was performed several months ago in a Catholic hospital in this diocese. I am further concerned by the hospital’s statement that the termination of a human life was necessary to treat the mother’s underlying medical condition.

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. The end does not justify the means.

The abortion was necessary to save the patient’s life. And of course a fetus couldn’t survive if the woman died at 11 weeks – a fact that wouldn’t change my feelings on saving a woman’s life anyway, but it does show Olmsted’s interest really isn’t in saving life.

The position of the Phoenix archdiocese is clear: a fetus is more valuable than the life of a woman. In fact, it’s more important not to directly terminate a fetus than to save a woman’s life even if the fetus couldn’t survive anyway. Which means a nun who acted to save a life has no place in that church according to its top official.

You can contact Olmsted and the Phoenix archdiocese by clicking here.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • Comrade Kevin

    I believe our political statements should stem from our belief in humanity, not from our belief that our own political leanings are more important than the humanity of others.

  • Tom

    This just goes to show, if you are a woman don’t go to a Catholic Hospital if you can possibly aviod it. It is against their policy to make your health their priority.

  • middlechild

    I am embarrassed to ask this, since I grew up Catholic and went to a Catholic high school (I think the most risque, liberal, world-weary people there were one of the religion teachers and one of the history teachers, the latter being one of the best teachers I ever had). Doesn’t the Church doctrine–encylicals, etc.—make some exceptions in the case of “life of the mother”, if not in cases like rape?
    That said…it is stories like this one that– while I still feel fear when I consider the thought of an afterlife–make me feel less and less guilty about not going to Mass, about feeling nothing but rage and repulsion when I read about the Church working to suppress choice and the civil rights of gay couples.

  • Captiver

    Does anyone else get the sense that it’s becoming increasing acceptable to be vocally against abortion in every circumstance, where it seemed not so long ago that many (some?) who opposed abortion were willing to allow exceptions. This is pretty scary. Then again, ultra-conservative positions appear to be being more openly advocated now on all issues, across the board. I keep waiting for this trend to slow down…no sign of it yet.

  • JoanOfArc

    Traditional catholic doctrine holds that abortion is always wrong. If, however, the pregnant woman needs, say, to have radiation and the fetus dies as a result of the radiation, that is OK by the church because the intention was not to kill the fetus.
    In childbirth, the church holds that if a doctor has to choose between the life of the mother and the life of the child, the church says to save the child and let the mother die.
    In other words, stay out of catholic hospitals if at all possible.

  • Marc

    As the saying goes with abortions, even as cheap rhetoric: “If you don’t like abortions, don’t have one.”
    I say the same thing about the Catholic Church: “If you don’t like it, don’t join it.”
    I mean, seriously, do we expect religious institutions to change their beliefs and by-laws for us? Rather than working on legislations and putting in politicians who are pro-choice, we get pouty and upset over the Catholic Church’s reaction to what they see as a violation of their own laws?
    We have other priorities here, and what the Catholic Church believes and disbelieves is none of my damned business, nor is it yours, so as long as their voices do not translate into legislations that render women choiceless.
    Pissed off? Go volunteer at your local Planned Parenthood, donate to abortion funds, go phonebank and knock on doors for pro-choice politicians, and do all you can to ensure that Roe v. Wade isn’t threatened every first Tuesday of November – but, for Christ’s sake, this is America, let’s be more tolerant of other people’s religions, even if we disagree with what they stand for.
    Want change? Work for it.

  • Kyra Cat Soul

    Pro-life: two deaths are better than one.
    Technicalities are more important than results.
    A change in cause-of-death and a couple days’ extra gestating are enough justification to kill someone. Oh, excuse me, sit back and watch someone die—my mistake.
    THANK GOD the actual abortion situation happened the way it did, and the person who had any chance at being alive today actually is. Thank Sister Margaret as well, for truly valuing human life.

  • Tracey T

    Their voices do, or at least try to make them, translate into taking away choices from people.
    You do not set the feminist agenda anymore than anyone else. Telling people “there are more important things, stop being so over-sensitive,etc.” is condescending and authoritative.
    This is a story about a woman who was fired for making a decision to save someone’s life as a member of a hospital ethics board.
    Just because a belief is religious doesn’t mean it is sheltered from critique and even mockery (that’s right Christian Side Hug and “Virgin Lips”).
    And I would defiantly argue one way feminists can “respect” (though I notice when people say respect religious beliefs in the way you just said it, they are really looking for is unchallenging reverance) religious beliefs and people is to support the people working to address the way some members of religions treat women. That means standing in solidarity and supporting the efforts of many nuns and pro-choice Catholics to expand the church’s stance, work to eliminate unwanted pregnacies and make it so that unplanned pregnancies can be afforded, and change Church doctrine enough that abortion is allowed when it is a threat to the woman’s life.
    I won’t be joing the Catholic Church as far as I see, but I will most certainly support those who work to expand women’s choices and value their lives within it. This nun made a decision to save someone’s life, kudos to her.

  • cattrack2

    Just because they have a different view of humanity (and bodily autonomy) than do you doesn’t mean they prioritize their politics ahead of humanity. I’m pro-choice & disagree with his decision but I certainly understand it. They don’t feel that the life of the mother is less than the life of the child, but they strongly believe that the life of the child is equal to the life of the mother. To them it makes as much sense as saying we should save your life by taking my life. Essentially the Catholic Church is arguing that people should stay out of it; the outcome should be up to God.
    As I said, I totally disagree with the decision, but I can understand it if in your world view fetuses have souls too. I don’t happen to think that they do, but for people who do think fetuses have LIFE its an understandable position. In this view fetuses are not some kind of parasite, they have all the rights to life that ‘walking around’ people do.


    As a Catholic, it IS my damn business if my so-called moral leaders are excommunicating the people who have devoted their lives to the service of others because they chose to save a mother (whose death would have resulted in the death of the fetus anyway) instead of pointlessly letting her die to drive home a point. I grew up in Oklahoma, which is far from tolerant of other people’s religions, especially Catholicism, and I grow weary of people imposing their judgement on my religion, however, I cannot agree with the decisions of people who value the life of a fetus over my life in any circumstance. These people show no tolerance, and will get none in return from me.
    Rant aside, I did start a facebook group in support of Sr. McBride:!/group.php?gid=127703687244468&ref=ts . Title aside, this group is really open to anyone who uses facebook and wants to stand in solidarity with a woman who was excommunicated for saving another’s life.

  • sugaredharpy

    That’s all nice and great, and I’m all for working for change, except that for many women the ONLY hospital nearby is a Catholic-run hospital. In my area, every single hospital is religiously affiliated. If you go further away from a city center, your options become more and more limited to one kind of religious hospital.
    So, no. It isn’t about joining or not joining the Catholic church, or even tolerance in this case, it’s about receiving adequate health care or not. And that’s not a choice many women (and men) have in their area.

  • sugaredharpy

    Ack, mine was a reply to Marc.

  • Pantheon

    Can someone explain why Catholic hospitals are allowed in the U.S.? Would the hospital have faced any punishment if they did force this woman to keep the fetus and die against her wishes?

  • Pantheon

    That would be fine if the only people who went to catholic hospitals were well-informed catholics who went there by choice.
    The problem is that you don’t usually get to choose what hospital you go to, at least in a lot of circumstances. If there is an emergency, the ambulance decides where to take you, usually the closest hospital. Even in a non-emergency situation, it will depend on your insurance network, etc.
    Imagine you (or your female family member) is pregnant and suddenly has an emergency complication– she’s hemmoraging and might die any minute. The ambulance arrives and takes her to the nearest hospital, which turns out to be a catholic hospital. They refuse to save her life. Would you say that its your/her own fault for going to a catholic hospital?

  • IAmGopherrr

    This is why I’m an atheist. How can they even have hospitals that dont allow abortions to be performed in them? Isnt that like putting religion above a womans rights? I know that catholic hospitals dont even offer plan b to rape victims. This archdiocese is sick and further represents an extension of the anti’s ideas that its okay to legislate ones theocratic beliefs on a womans secular body-even if it kills her.

  • IAmGopherrr

    Anyone else think excommunication is an honor?

  • IAmGopherrr

    Totally agree here. They are very extreme. The 2006 south dakota abortion ban, banned abortions even in cases of rape, incest or health of the woman.It even outlawed getting plan b/contraceptives if they knew you were already pregnant. The 2007 Ohio bill 228 not only wouldve ourlawed abortion in all cases but also would make it a felony if a person unknowingly transported a woman across state lines to obtain one. So for instance the taxi driver would now be a felon. The sick thing now is that theyre also against birth control and have no qualms about lying about it, often claiming that contraceptive and plan b is the oral abortion pill R486. The sick thing is that south dakota abortion ban was only voted down by 55%. Thats too small a number that shouldve been against this.

  • IAmGopherrr

    Youre kidding right? There shouldnt even be catholic hospitals in the first place! Especially if they put religion ahead of health and patient care. I dont give a fuck about tramping on some pompous archdioceses religious ‘laws,’ in a secular country at all, especially when hes jeopardizing choice, health and womens status in my country. Apparently all you have to do is say ‘its your religion,’ and no matter how stupid, misogynistic, homophobic, backwards, ect people will claim they respect it. Of course if you said you had the same beliefs but didnt say its your religion then people would say youre sick. Drop the illusion.

  • IAmGopherrr

    ….or a womans raped and they take her to a catholic hospital and they refuse to give her plan b because they ‘dont want to cause an abortion.’

  • IAmGopherrr

    Agreed. I wonder if in these catholic hospitals that if a woman needed an abortion to save her health or her life if they would tell her?Shouldnt there be laws to monitor these hospitals to make sure that they dont do that?

  • Dena

    Uhm, I just don’t understand this. If an abortion was NECESSARY to save this woman’s life, what else would the priest suggest? If the mother had died, the fetus would have too. I don’t get it.
    What I think the church should do is honor the nun for helping to save this woman’s life. I mean come one, she could have freaking died. What the fuck?

  • schismtracer

    Only if you don’t believe in the hell it allegedly condemns you to. If you’ve been raised to believe everything some pompous ass with a pulpit and fancy hat says, it’s rather more threatening.

  • FLT

    We need to return to old-time values.
    As in, even Catholic doctrine did not forbid abortion until the late 1800’s.
    This was because until fetal movement could be felt, it was considered the woman’s own business.
    We really need to get the word out there: Catholic “tradition” of being anti abortion is in a large part modern BS to put women in a subservient position and blame it on a “tradition” so no one has to take responsibility.

  • konkonsn

    The Catholic logic does some pretty…intriguing mental flips about this. JoanofArc is right in that the child’s life takes priority over the mother’s, but in certain cases where the action of assisting the mother in her health would indirectly kill the child…it’s ok. Here’s an article that explains it, though the logic of this all still escapes me on many levels:
    Sometimes I feel like the nuns have a better grasp of Catholic doctrine/common sense than the clergy…back when I was Catholic, nuns saved my faith many times because they were so much more open about things.

  • Jeanette

    “Anyone else think excommunication is an honor?”
    From an outside perspective, honestly, yeah. But I feel very sorry for the nun who just lost her livelihood because she saved a woman’s life.

  • preppy

    i wish i knew how to contact Sister Margaret McBride so i could tell her how many women support her, and how awesome i think she is.

  • Honeybee

    But are they allowed to do this???
    We have Catholic hospitals here too (Canada), but they still have to follow laws and ethics of the medical body, they can’t refuse to give an abortion and let a woman die because of Catholic beliefs. They are simply not allowed.
    Is it different in the US? Can they really do this?

  • makomk

    In the eyes of the Catholic Church, it’s better that mother and fetus die than that the mother’s life is saved due to an abortion, yes. That way she’s not in a state of sin when she dies. I’m sure the Catholics here can explain it better than I could; I have very little to do with the church these days.

  • Cassius

    The church needs to look back at its own past. It hasnt always been about sticking to tradition without any reason or thinking.
    There was a reason the church wanted their communities to breed, the plague. After the plague 2/3rds of Europe was gone. In American therms 200 million Americans died of an disease.
    After the plague the church was against any form of birth prevention. If you happened to be gay, tough luck, for the good of the community you were expected to procreate and marry anyway.
    I would say the re population efforts in Europe have been a success. Its time for the church to realize that overpopulation is the problem today and that being a member of the catholic church does not mean you are not allowed to involve reason logic and strategic thinking.

  • Tom

    I really like this sentiment, that even in the face off how offensive this is you can support someone like this. Good for you.

  • makomk

    Let’s not mince words: their “different view of humanity (and bodily autonomy)” is that it’s better than women die than live having committed the sin of having an abortion. It’s not even about saving the fetus’s life – even if it would inevitably die with its mother, it’s still better for them both to die than for her to get an abortion. Yes, really.

  • Pantheon

    I don’t know, that’s what I’m asking (below). Can anyone point us to an article that explains this?
    My feeling is that even if its illegal, who’s going to stop them? There have got to be a lot of cases where they could do this kind of thing just by not telling a patient their options, and not get caught.

  • Pantheon

    To clarify, they certainly can take patients to a catholic hospital who were not specifically seeking a catholic hospital, so it doesn’t make sense to say that what catholics do is their own business. I am not sure of the legality of what they have to do in these situations once a patient is there.

  • Yeltsine

    Apparently all you have to do is say ‘its your religion,’ and no matter how stupid, misogynistic, homophobic, backwards, ect people will claim they respect it.
    As a matter of fact, yes. At least, respect in the sense that they are allowed to practice is unencumbered. That’s the basis for a free society.
    Granted, I think the issue at hand is more complicated, but I really take issue with your statement as is.