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In November 2009, a 27-year-old pregnant mother of four suffering from pulmonary hypertension was admitted to St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona. This condition has a mortality rate of between 30% and 56% in pregnant women. The pulmonary hypertension and right heart failure from which the woman was suffering led doctors to conclude that unless she aborted her 11-week-old fetus, the probability of death for her and her 11-week fetus was nearly 100%.

As the woman was too weak to be moved to another hospital, Sister Margaret McBride, a long-standing hospital administrator, member of the ethics panel at St. Joseph’s, and liaison to the diocese, authorized the young woman to have the abortion she needed. As a result, the young woman’s life and health were preserved.

This week, upon learning of the abortion, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix immediately excommunicated Sister Margaret McBride for her role in supporting the abortion. Excommunication is the most serious penalty the church can impose.

Join us in sending a letter of support for Sister McBride today.

Please take a moment to write a letter of support to Sr. McBride. Send your letters to activists@catholicsforchoice.org. Over 100 notes of support have been received so far from a wide variety of people, and we need your support to ensure that she hears from as many supportive voices as possible.

Catholics for Choice will be compiling your letters and notes, and will send them on to Sr. McBride so that she knows she is not alone during this difficult time. We need her to hear from everyone, from all communities and all faith traditions, so please share this action with your friends, colleagues and family.

For me, this story brings a number of questions to the forefront:

1) Are Catholic hospitals safe for pregnant women? Are they places in which medical decisions will be based on what is best for the woman’s health, not on religious dogma? To what code of ethics should these hospitals be held in terms of patient care?

Jill at Feministe provided an excellent analysis of the ethical perplexities of this decision. She ended her blog with this:

"…if it’s the Catholic perspective that a mother must die along with the fetus if she’s in a situation like this, then fine — pregnant Catholic women who follow this line of belief (and I’m going to guess there aren’t too many when it comes down to it) are welcome to refuse treatment, including abortion, in dire circumstances. But there’s a real conflict if a hospital adheres to a religiously-based morality system that disallows legal treatments to prevent death or physical harm — especially where there is no option of moving the patient to another hospital."

2) What alternative would Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted have preferred in this situation? Would he have preferred to risk the lives of this woman, her four children, and unborn fetus? At what point does religious dogma need to be flexible in its real world application?

3) “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.” Does this stand true in Sister McBride’s situation?

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