December 22, 2010 — Phoenix, Ariz., Bishop Thomas Olmsted on Tuesday revoked St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center of its Catholic status because he says the hospital violated Catholic moral teaching by authorizing an abortion to save a pregnant woman's life in 2009, the Los Angeles Times reports.
The Sisters of Mercy, the Catholic order that leads the hospital, stood by the decision to save the woman's life and said St. Joseph's will continue operating "in the Catholic tradition" without official church supervision (Landsberg, Los Angeles Times, 12/22). According to Reuters, the "practical impact of the bishop's decision is that the 697-bed hospital, the Phoenix area's oldest, will no longer be able to hold mass at its chapel and communion wafers will be removed" (Schwartz, Reuters, 12/21). St. Joseph's did not receive direct funding from the Catholic Church, the AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports (Myers, AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 12/21).
The woman, a mother of four children, was 11 weeks pregnant and had pulmonary hypertension, a rare condition in which continuing the pregnancy often jeopardizes the life of the woman. Physicians concluded that the placenta had to be removed to prevent the patient from dying. The Catholic Church condemns direct abortion -- meant to terminate a pregnancy -- but permits indirect abortion in which fetal death is a secondary effect of another necessary procedure (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/28).
Olmsted had given the Catholic Healthcare West hospital system until Dec. 20 to meet several demands outlined in a Nov. 22 letter before cutting ties with St. Joseph's. He wrote that hospital officials would need to acknowledge in writing that the 2009 procedure was a violation of Catholic directives for health care institutions. Olmsted also asked St. Joseph's to agree to a review and certification process to ensure full compliance with Catholic directives. Lastly, the hospital would need to send its medical staff to training about the directives (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/20).
Hospital Officials Defend Decision
Linda Hunt, president of St. Joseph's, said the woman was in imminent danger of dying unless the procedure was performed. "If we are presented with a situation in which a pregnancy threatens a woman's life, our first priority is to save both patients," meaning both the woman and the fetus, Hunt said. She added, "If that is not possible, we will always save the life we can save, and that is what we did in this case." She continued, "Morally, ethically and legally, we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save" (AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 12/21).
The hospital system and Olmsted had negotiated for months in an attempt to resolve the issue. At a news conference Tuesday, Olmsted said the hospital failed to adequately address "the scandal caused by the abortion." He contended that St. Joseph's has for years violated other ethical and religious guidelines set by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including offering contraceptive counseling and supplies, providing male and female sterilization surgeries and authorizing abortion procedures in case of rape, incest and threats to the woman's mental or physical health (Reuters, 12/22).