Thursday, December 23, 2010

An Open Letter to Bishop Thomas Olmsted -- On a Mother's Life Saved

Many in the Catholic blogosphere have followed, for more than a year, the case of the young woman in Phoenix, a mother of four, whose life was saved in 2009--in St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, a Catholic institution--through surgery that resulted in the death of her unborn child.  The woman's doctors decided, after careful study, that her chance of dying within days or weeks was almost one hundred percent if she did not have the surgery.  Catholic teaching over the years has made room for such a contingency.  That is, if an unborn child dies as an incidental and unavoidable consequence of a procedure that must be performed in order to save the mother's life, the child's death is a tragedy, but not a morally culpable outcome.  Theologically, this situation comes under the concept of the "double effect."

Last May, however, Bishop Thomas Olmsted, head of the Phoenix diocese, decided to excommunicate Sr. Margaret McBride, who served as one of the hospital's administrators and was also in charge of its medical ethics board.

On Tuesday of this week, Bishop Olmsted issued a proclamation that officially stripped the hospital of its Catholic identity.  (I say "officially" because any institution's or individual's genuine, core-deep Catholic-Christian identity is something that no prelate, not even the Pope, can remove.)

I ended up writing a letter to Bishop Olmsted, which I will drop in the mail later today.  (No, it's not much in keeping with the Christmas spirit--but then, neither were the bishop's actions.)  Of course, I realize that my letter will likely have zero influence on the bishop, if he even ends up seeing it.  Yet Catholics in the pews owe it to the church, and to their vocation as the concerned laity, to speak up when they see something seriously wrong happen in the church.  Bishop Olmsted's actions in this case--the logic he uses, even--strike me as profoundly wrong.  The letter, for whatever it's worth:

Dear Bishop Olmsted:
Here's a moral quandary for you, a hypothetical situation:  A small plane is about to crash.  Two people are aboard the plane.  There is only one parachute in the plane.  There is no way that both individuals can be saved.  That outcome, desirable though it certainly would be, is simply impossible.
Should the parachute be thrown overboard?  That is, should both lives be sacrificed because both lives cannot be saved?  Or would you allow that it is better that at least one of the passengers have a chance at life? 
Count yourself fortunate, Your Excellency.  In reading this letter, you have encountered only a hypothetical scenario.  The doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital had to deal with a real, honest-to-goodness woman who was about to die, along with her unborn child.  (As I'm certain you already know, the unborn child was at eleven weeks gestation.  There was no way, based on medical facts that the woman's doctors faced, that the mother would have survived several more months in order to give birth anywhere close to the point of viability.  Plainly put, the woman and her child both would have died if your preferred course of action had occurred in that hospital.)
 I remain Catholic because of Christ's love and compassion, and in spite of (not out of respect for) the example that you have given the Church in your recent actions. 
The bishop's diocesan address, in case anyone else wants to write:  The Most Rev. Thomas Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix, 400 East Monroe Street, Phoenix, Arizona 85004-2336.  

Deacon Greg Kandra, over at the Deacon's Bench, has posted excerpts from several articles on this subject as well as primary source documents that verify that the woman's condition was extremely grave--so much so that she stood virtually no chance of surviving the pregnancy, nor of even carrying the unborn child to the point at which he or she might have been viable outside of the womb.  (The pregnancy was eleven weeks along when the woman's condition turned critical.)

May God help all of us as we stand up for all human life--including the life of this young woman, whose four children, thankfully, are not motherless this Christmas.  It is a good thing indeed that she is alive, notwithstanding the death--the unavoidable death--of the child she carried in her womb in 2009.

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