By Caroline Johnston Polisi
Friday, July 9, 2010
A legal commentator analyzes the possible reverberations of a Catholic nun being excommunicated for authorizing an abortion that saved the life of a young woman and the ACLU's decision to act against what they say is a violation of federal law.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Late last year, when a young mother of four came through the doors of St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Sister Margaret Mary McBride made a difficult decision. The choice she made would turn out to be the definitive one of her career.
Because of it, she suffered a very public excommunication at the hands of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, was held up by the Roman Catholic Church as an example of a former "woman religious" turned apostate and resigned at the request of the bishop from her position as vice president of mission integration at the hospital.
While details of the case remain hidden by federal privacy laws, the maelstrom of media attention generated by the incident has provided some information concerning the events that took place.
The woman, age 27, was 11 weeks pregnant and suffered from a serious condition called pulmonary hypertension, which ultimately led to a diagnosis of right-sided heart failure and shock. In consultation with her family and a team of doctors, the ethics committee of the hospital--on which Sister McBride sat--voted to allow an emergency abortion in order to save the life of the woman.
In a statement released shortly after the incident became public, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix proclaimed it a "scandal that a Catholic hospital would perform such a reprehensible act" and insisted that a set of ethical and religious directives, to which St. Joseph's and countless other public Catholic hospitals adhere, prohibit direct abortions under any circumstances--even, apparently, if that means almost certain death for the mother and fetus.
Representatives at St. Joseph's Hospital responded with a statement of their own, firmly reiterating that the procedure was necessary to save the woman's life.
Much of the attention over the past few months has centered on murky questions of ethical and religious significance, with popular reactions ranging from outrage at the Catholic Church for its treatment of Sister McBride to a renunciation of the hospital for opposing church directives.
With attacks so virulent coming from both sides of the political spectrum, it's important to recognize the situation for what it is, and what it is not. It is not a platform to criticize members of the Catholic Church for their deeply held religious beliefs. They are entitled to them. Nor is it a time to delve into the complex moral and political arguments so often associated with the practice of elective abortions.
Rather, it is an opportunity to identify and rectify a troubling and dangerous violation of federal law potentially taking place in Catholic hospitals across the country.
Last week, members of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office did just that, along with the ACLU of Arizona and the New York-based ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. Together, the civil liberties organizations sent a letter addressed to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. In it, the organizations raise possible systematic violations by religiously-affiliated hospitals of the Conditions of Participation of Medicare and Medicaid and the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA).
EMTALA became law in 1986 and applies to hospitals that accept federal dollars for Medicare and Medicaid services, which, in practical terms, is almost every hospital in the United States.
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