Saving Catholic Health Care Ethics

Nancy Valko
Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVI, No. 1
Eastertide 2011
Reproduced with Permission

More than a decade ago I was approached by a non-Catholic nurse I'll call Melissa, who wanted to talk about an abortion that continued to haunt her. A young pregnant mother discovered she had breast cancer and was counseled to get an immediate abortion and then start chemotherapy and radiation. Melissa, a pro-life nurse herself, was reassured by the Catholic oncologist that this was a necessary and ethical abortion to save the mother's life. The mother reluctantly agreed but Melissa said that the abortion itself seemed to take a terrible toll on the young mother. The young mom died of breast cancer not long after the abortion. Melissa felt that somehow the abortion was wrong despite the doctor's reassurances. Knowing I was Catholic and involved in ethics, she wanted to know my opinion.

As a non-Catholic, Melissa did not fully understand the Catholic Church's prohibition against direct abortion. As a nurse, she also did not know that studies were showing that not only did abortion show no benefit in the survival of these mothers, the survival rates were often better for the mothers who did not have an abortion.1 Now, even the National Cancer Institute says "Because ending the pregnancy is not likely to improve the mother's chance of survival, it is not usually a treatment option."2 Melissa's instincts were right. So was the Catholic Church.

This tragic situation came back to me recently when I read about Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix and his actions following an abortion at one of his diocese's Catholic hospitals.

An Abortion in Phoenix

In November 2009, Sister Margaret McBride and the ethics committee at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix gave doctors permission to perform an abortion. The mother involved had pulmonary hypertension in the 11th week of pregnancy and the hospital continues to insist that the abortion was necessary to save the mother's life.3 Bishop Olmsted found out about the abortion. After months of discussion with the hospital and its parent company, Catholic HealthCare West, about not just this abortion but what the bishop determined to be a pattern of behavior that violated Catholic ethical directives for health care, Bishop Olmsted revoked the Catholic status of the hospital in December 2010.

The criticism of Bishop Olmsted was immediate and harsh. Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, issued a strong statement supporting the abortion and the hospital.4 Marquette University professor and theologian M. Therese Lysaught denied that the termination was even a direct abortion.5 The American Civil Liberties Union, citing the Phoenix abortion case, complained to federal health officials that "… no hospital - religious or otherwise - should be prohibited from saving women's lives and from following federal law."6

News media and pundits across the country criticized Bishop Olmsted's decision. Unfortunately ignored was the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' statement explaining the principles involved in the Phoenix abortion case.7 (See the complete statement on page 14 of this issue.)

While the criticism from secular sources is not unexpected, it is the criticism from Catholic sources that arguably causes the most damage and confusion for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The real-world consequences of such criticism of religious freedom, traditional ethics and conscience rights are already happening.

The Crisis in Catholic Ethics

That some Catholic ethicists, theologians or entities would defy a bishop on Catholic principles should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with some of the long battles waged in Catholic ethics circles. For decades, Catholic ethicists and theologians have taken opposing stands over such issues as early induction abortions on babies with anencephaly, contraception, sterilizations, tube feedings for the so-called vegetative, etc. Even pronouncements from the Vatican or the USCCB have not dissuaded some Catholic sources from insisting that they are right.

As Ann Hendershott wrote in The Wall Street Journal in December 2010, "Many theologians, like Prof. Nicholas Healy of St. John's University in New York, write that theologians comprise 'an alternative magisterium' to the teaching authority of the bishops. And in cases like the one at St. Joseph's, the alternative magisterium often trumps the true Magisterium of the Church. Catholic colleges and hospital administrators now 'shop' for theologians who will support their decisions."8

Bishop Robert F. Vasa, who revoked the Catholic status of St. Charles Medical Center in the Diocese of Baker, Oregon, in February 2010 because of its insistence on performing sterilizations, has cautioned that "if a bishop trustingly accepts that Catholic hospitals in his jurisdiction are following the [ethical] directives in accord with his proper interpretation of those directives, he may be surprised to learn this may not be the case."9

When I graduated from a Catholic nursing school in 1969, abortion was illegal and universally abhorred. There was no such thing as "emergency contraception". Withholding or withdrawing tube feedings from people with severe brain injuries or dementia was unthinkable. Pulling ventilators from non-brain-dead patients in order to harvest their organs when their hearts stopped would have been considered an atrocity. Conscience rights for health care providers were intrinsic and considered a protection for patients, not debated or undermined. The list of current ethical problems goes on and on.

Now we have a society well along in the process of embracing all this and more as progress. Unfortunately, we also now have some influential Catholic theologians, ethicists and entities like the Catholic Health Association finding ways to support many of these so-called "progressive" changes in health care ethics.

I purposely chose a Catholic nursing education because I knew it was the best and, like most people, I totally trusted Catholic health care institutions. Now, however, I often get calls or e-mails from Catholic patients, relatives and even doctors and nurses who are confused and upset with the treatment and ethics they encountered in a Catholic hospital. Too often I even hear the refrain "But I though they were pro-life!"

I applaud bishops like Bishops Vasa and Olmsted in taking strong but unpopular actions to ensure authentic Catholic ethics in any health care institution calling itself Catholic. In an era where hospitals are competing for patients, Catholic hospitals can stand up and actually shine by offering both the best technology and the best principles. Trust is not only an indispensable component of good health care but also a potent marketing tool that can appeal to both Catholics and non-Catholics alike in this uncertain health care environment.

It is up to all of us, whether as health care providers or the public, to demand the very best in Catholic health care before it is too late.


1 "Abortion Typically Unnecessary When Cancer Strikes a Pregnant Mother" by Steven Ertelt. LifeNews. 12/09/07 online at: [Back]

2 "Breast Cancer Treatment and Pregnancy", National Cancer Institute, US National Institutes of Health: [Back]

3 St. Joseph's Statement to Bishop Announcement. Online: [Back]

4 Catholic Health Association Statement Regarding St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. December 22, 2010. Online: [Back]

5 "No direct abortion at Phoenix hospital, theologian says" by Jerry Filteau. National Catholic Reporter, December 23, 2010. Online: [Back]

6 "Abortion fight at Catholic hospital pushes ACLU to seek federal help" by Rob Stein. Washington Post, December 22, 2010. Online: [Back]

7 "The Distinction between Direct Abortion and Legitimate Medical Procedures". United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine. June 23, 2010. Online: [Back]

8 "Catholic Hospitals vs. the Bishops" by Anne Hendershott. Wall Street Journal, December 31, 2010. Online: [Back]

9 "Phoenix hospital's break with bishop a troubling sign, health care experts say" Catholic Anchor, January 6, 2011. Online: wordpress/?p=2633. [Back]