NCR reports the announcement by Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olstead of the excommunication of Mercy Sister Margaret McBride for her approval of an abortion for a critically ill woman. McBride was the ethics committee member on-call when the decision was made. The patient was 11 weeks pregnant and suffering from pulmonary hypertension, a condition which likely would have claimed the lives of both mother and fetus had the abortion been denied. Excommunication for procuring an abortion is latae sententiae, that is to say, the penalty is automatic on committing the offense (barring substantial morally mitigating factors such as use of force, substantial fear, etc., which do not seem to apply in this case.) The Canon describing the penalty is terse--anyone who "procures a completed abortion" is affected;the commentary notes that direct agents or necessary cooperators (someone whose opposition would prevent the action,) are both liable. Olmstead described her as a "formal cooperator," i.e., one who agrees with the intended action. The bishop is announcing the penalty, not imposing it. Fr. John Erich, the bishop's ethics committee chair, agrees with the letter of the law. When it comes to abortion, he says, "The reason for such a procedure never matters. Indeed, John Paul II's encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" rules out a claim of self-defense by the mother in such cases:

It is true that the decision to have an abortion is often tragic and painful for the mother, insofar as the decision to rid herself of the fruit of conception is not made for purely selfish reasons or out of convenience, but out of a desire to protect certain important values such as her own health...Nevertheless, these reasons and others like them, however serious and tragic, can never justify the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.

I wonder if in part we're dealing with incompatible moral imaginations. The teaching of the Church requires Catholics to see in the conceptus a human person, and to protect the embryo "as a person" from conception. We are called, and led by the bishops, to imagine--to see beyond the evidence of plain vision--in the embryo a person like ourselves and our loved ones. But very often the callousness of statements like "The reason for such a procedure never matters," when translated into, as in this case "The life of the woman never matters," leads me to wonder whether the bishops can ever imagine themselves female and threatened by pregnancy. If they could, would they be so quick to discount the life of the mother in such hard cases?

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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