Catholic Bishop Castigates and Threatens Hospital that Saved Woman’s Life

In November 2009, a young mother of four children was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona for an emergency abortion. The doctors who cared for her at the Catholic hospital determined that without the emergency abortion, she likely would have died. From a letter sent by the ACLU in July of 2010 about the case:

The woman was eleven weeks pregnant and suffered from life-threatening pulmonary hypertension, which is high blood pressure in the arteries that supply blood to the lungs. As her condition worsened, the hospital diagnosed her with right-sided heart failure and cardiogenic shock, and determined that she would almost certainly die unless she terminated the pregnancy.

I’m sure her husband and children are forever grateful to the surgeons and physicians who saved the life of this woman, a wife and mother.

Not so the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, however.

After the life-saving procedure was performed Bishop Thomas Olmstead of the Diocese demoted Sister Mary McBride who acted as the liasion between the hospital Ethics Committee and the physicians. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops agreed with the decision.

Now, in a letter revealed in the media today, Bishop Olmstead is not only castigating Catholic Healthcare West, the group that runs St. Joseph’s Hospital, for saving her life but threatening them in order to force them to promise that doctors will never save a woman’s life if it requires an emergency abortion ever again.

In a letter (PDF) to Lloyd H. Dean, President of Catholic Healthcare West, Bishop Olmstead calls the life-saving procedure “morally wrong” even though he doesn’t deny that it almost certainly saved her life. The ACLU notes that he then “threatens to remove his endorsement of the hospital unless CHW “acknowledge[s] in writing that the medical procedure that resulted in the abortion at St. Josephs’ Hospital was a violation” of the policy that governs all Catholic hospitals and “will never occur again at St. Joseph’s Hospital.”

From the letter it seems as if Dean and CHW have stuck to their position that not only were their actions moral and just, in this circumstance, but that they certainly would not promise not to save a woman’s life or health if presented with a similar case in the future. In fact, they presented both religious and moral ethicists’ opinions as support for the hospital’s actions.

On what planet does Bishop Omstead live that saving the life of a mother of four is unacceptable on a moral or religious scale?

The ACLU claims that Olmstead’s insistence that the hospital must never provide an emergency abortion procedure is actually a violation of federal law. Alexi Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney for the ACLU, said in a statement this week:

“Religiously affiliated hospitals are not exempt from federal laws that protect a patient’s right to receive emergency care, and cannot invoke their religious status to jeopardize the health and lives of pregnant women. Women should never have to be afraid that they will be denied life-saving medical care when they enter a hospital.”

The federal law, in specific, to which Kolbi Molinas refers is the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act. The law protects patients’ rights to receive emergency reproductive health care and Catholic hospitals cannot opt out. The law is necessary given that Catholic hospitals operate 15 percent of all hospital beds, according to the ACLU, and may likely provide the only or closest emergency care in a region. In a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in July 2010, the ACLU requests an investigation into violations of the federal law – not only as a result of the incident at St. Joseph’s but after numerous reports of horrendous scenarios:

We know that what happened at St. Joseph’s was not an isolated incident. Catholic-owned hospitals across the country have refused to provide emergency abortions, as documented in a recent article in the American Journal of Public Health. For example, a doctor in the Northeast decided to leave a Catholic-owned hospital after he was forced by the hospital’s ethics committee to risk a pregnant patient’s life. The woman was in the process of miscarrying at 19 weeks of pregnancy. She was dying: her temperature was 106 degrees, she had disseminated intravascular coagulopathy, which is a life-threatening condition that prevents a person’s blood from clotting normally and causes excessive bleeding. This patient was bleeding so badly that the sclera, the whites of her eyes, were red, filled with blood. Despite the fact that there was no chance the fetus could survive, the ethics committee told the doctor that he could not perform the abortion the woman needed to save her life until the fetus’s heartbeat stopped. After the delay, the patient was in the Intensive Care Unit for 10 days, and developed pulmonary disease, resulting in lifetime oxygen dependency.

Still, Bishop Olmstead and the Roman Catholic Diocese are steadfast in their insistence that physicians and hospital administrators acted immorally when they saved the life of a pregnant mother of four children and are determined to ensure that pregnant women are not safe in the hands of Catholic hospitals across the country.

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  • aligatorhardt

    This is an insane policy from the Catholic Church. If the mother dies, then obviously the baby dies as well. There is no chance of keeeping an eleven week old fetus alive outside the womb. The greater question is, what makes the life of the fetus more valuable than the life of the mother? and in this case there is no such question. This reveals the falicy of deciding all cases based on imagination and dogma instead of the actual circumstances. Any law that demands complience without consideration of the circumstances is a worthless and damaging law. Even in the charge of murder, a difference is seen in self defence resulting in death, and murder by choice. The laws against abortion are illegitimate for exactly this reason. It is imposible to provide justice when the facts of the case are ignored. What purpose would be served by condeming the mother to death in addition to the fetus?

    As usual the Catholic Church is not concerned with justice, but rather with maintaining an unsubstantiated control over people even to the point of their death. If they want fewer abortions, then the best way to achieve that is to offer birth controls to all who require them.

  • beenthere72

    Disgusting.   Absolutely disgusting.   Proof that the church really believes that it is above the law.  


    I can’t stop shaking my head – that letter enraged me. 

  • prochoicekatie

    I have always been disgusted with the Catholic Church’s approach to emergency reproductive care.

    It is all too evident in their belief that it is better to remove a woman’s reproductive organ(s) when an abortion is necessary (which they are basically admitting, but creating a policy of sterilization to address the issue) than to simply perform the abortion. Women must be punished for their “biological error or failure to have a successful pregnancy” by forgoing their chance to ever be a mother. Or they must wait until their life is at risk for an abortion we all KNOW will be necessary eventually, creating situations where women suffer permanent health problems, face increasingly dangerous procedures, and often die due to delays. This shows that women are willingly accepting their punishment – blindness, inability to walk, loss of function in their kidneys, etc.; they offer these things as sacrifices to the altar of motherhood, procreation, and their feminine obligation.

    The church has philosophized to bend Christian teachings so many times to justify exceptions to the Bible on things like amassing wealth, casting judgement, and even murder. Why they believe that abortion (for which a prohibition isn’t even explicit in the Bible) cannot SOMETIMES be morally just baffles me.

    Women are called to sacrifice EVERYTHING for their faith, and the Church itself and its leaders sacrifice NOTHING. The disdain for women who act in their best interest (something men and the Church leadership do ALL THE TIME) highlights the inherent sexism within Church doctrine.

    When a religious institution clings to the societal control mechanisms of their religion more desperately than the practice of faith and spirituality itself, it is obvious that they have decided that the primary function of their existence is not to unite people with a higher power but to control individuals’ behavior here on earth.

  • prochoicekatie

    When women are asked to ‘wait’ to terminate a pregnancy that jeopardizes their health (and in turn the well-being of all who know and depend on them) to see if God will miraculously cure their hypertension, their ectopic pregnancy, etc., I always think of the man in the flood.

    A storm is coming, and everyone in the town is called to evacuate. One man stays behind, saying that his faith is strong and that God will save him. As the water becomes a foot high, his neighbor offers to drive him out of town, but the man refuses. The water reaches the first floor of his house, and a couple on a make-shift raft come by, pleading to take him to safety. The man refuses. When the water reaches his roof, a helicopter comes to rescue him, but the man refuses, claiming that God will keep him from harm. The man eventually drowns, and when he reaches heaven, he asks God why he didn’t come to save him. God replies, “I came three times, and you refused!”

    Why does the church require women to be this man?


  • prochoiceferret

    These Catholic diocese and bishop folks are rather immoral chaps, aren’t they?

  • freetobe


    I will boycott the church forever and really wish all the women members  would wise up and get out of that satanic institution. I do not say this lightly they paractice rituals that are satanic and even have an upside  cross over the alters. They are dispicable old men who do not deserve this position they are NOT God!!!!

  • colleen

    I think that letter is pretty clear. The Catholic church’s contempt and hatred of women runs so deep that they would kill a woman whose sole fault is that she is  physically unable to sustain a pregnancy, they would kill her, they would call her unnecessary and painful death ‘moral’ and they would make the deaths of women who could be our mothers or daughters or friends a matter of public and institutional policy.

    Because the embryo or fetus  was doomed no matter what happened it’s clear that the death of  pregnant women is the objective of the Church. There is no other logical conclusion.

    We really need a few good feminist lawyers to take these men to court.

  • fishwithoutabike

    I can’t find any official news of this and they have kept a pretty tight lid on it, but according to a friend who works for Catholic Health Services of Long Island, there was an extremely similar case in which a team of doctors deemed terminating the pregnancy was essential to saving the woman’s life in one of their hospitals. After an ethics meeting and discussion which probably took longer than it should have, it was decided that the procedure would be done and the woman’s life was saved.

    Consequently, every member of the ethics panel which unanimously decided to terminate the pregnancy WAS FIRED.


    WHAT THE HELL does this say to other physicians in the network of 14 medical centers, when it comes to saving women’s lives?? Makes me sick. Wish I could find an official record of it. I would blow it up all over the web.

  • amie-newman

    Thank you for your comment. If you have more information on this case in Long Island, would you let me know? You can contact me at amieATrhrealitycheckDOTorg.

    Thanks so much!


  • ack

    We really need a few good feminist lawyers to take these men to court.


    Considering that fewer and fewer law schools are offering specialty courses on repro rights. Law schools that provide well-rounded education can certainly prepare young lawyers for the fight, but schools generally offer courses in patent law, environmental law, family law, etc., to prepare students for THOSE fights.

  • goatini

    The Catholic church’s contempt and hatred of women runs so deep that they would kill a woman whose sole fault is that she is physically unable to sustain a pregnancy, they would kill her…

    It’s beyond contempt and hatred.  It’s the FACT that the RCC classifies women as livestock.  If you aren’t capable of trouble-free reproduction, it’s okay to cull you from the herd so you can be replaced with another animal.    

    Let’s take a look at some animal husbandry advice on culling, where we will see that letting a woman die because she cannot sustain a pregnancy is just Good Herd Management Practice:

    Questions to ask when deciding a cow’s future in the herd:

    Does she have a history of calving difficulties or post calving illnesses…? Cows that cause problems at calving time are not pleasant to have and are costly to keep in the herd.

    Does she have an undesirable disposition? Is she a nervous cow or does she kick whenever her udder is touched? These are undesirable traits that should be noted along with production and calving problems.

    Is she an old cow, and is the available barn space needed for freshening heifers? In other words, should the old make way for the young? 

    Culling Decisions

    One of the greatest determinants of profitability in a cow-calf operation is reproductive rate. 

    Cows passing on inferior genetics to their calves for economically important performance traits and cows with unacceptably low milk production are potential culls. 

    Making informed culling decisions helps maintain a high level of herd performance. Even favorite cows should be subject to a systematic culling process. 

    Methods to Increase Reproductive Efficiency In Cattle

    Reproductive inefficiency is one of the most costly and production-limiting problems facing both the dairy and cow-calf industries. For example, in the six mid-western states that comprise the Heart of America Dairy Herd Improvement Association, 17.4% of the dairy cows in 1999 were culled because of reproductive failure. 

    Over 27% of beef cows are culled because of reproductive failure or reproductive problems. 

  • bj-survivor

    The rage that fills me over Bishop Olmstead’s relentless misogyny is not something that I could ever eloquently express. Isn’t she a human being and, therefore, isn’t her life worthy of preserving? FFS, a veritable moron could understand that the fetus was doomed, so this isn’t about “saving” a baby, but only about punishing breeding livestock for not being able to successfully breed…And “pro-lifers” wonder why we don’t take them at face value and believe that they truly, really care about all human lives. Rather, it appears that they are insistent on relegating women to fourth-class citizenship, somewhere below even death-row inmates and corpses, and creating unnecessary suffering, illness, permanent injury, and death.


    The one siliver lining is Catholic Healthcare West’s response. I work for a CHW hospital and am extremely gratified by the response of its president, Lloyd Dean (who is not Catholic, but Baptist).

  • julie-watkins

    Thank you Amie for posting this, especially the link to the copy of the letter.

    I agree beenthere72, it’s absolutely disgusting & enraging. For those of you who have trouble with PDFs, here’s some quotes. The letter is 3.5 pages of lecturing & asserting the bishop’s authority & there’s no acknowledgement of the life & health of the pregnant woman. In the first paragraph Bishop Olmsted observes that

    … it is more than apparent that the position of CHW [administration of the “Catholic” hospical]  is that discerning minds can disagree. … In effect, you would have me believe that we will merely have to agree to disagree. But this resolution is unacceptable because it disregards my authority and responsibility to interpret the moral law…

    The Bishop, claiming he is “moral”, wants — in effect — the hospital to treat women like livestock, since it declares itself as “Catholic”. Heh. He uses the word “shepherd”, refering to himself. In his view, If a woman can not successfully complete a pregnancy it’s permissible — “moral” — to let her die through inaction. No deliberate abortion is “moral”, even if the fetus is doomed. (The select tool won’t work on the PDF, so I’m transcribing.)

    … The irony of our present state of affairs is that an organization that identifies itself as “Catholic” (CHW), is operating a hospital in my Diocese that does not abide by the ERD’s [Ethical and Religious Dirrectives of the USCCB], and in the case of St. Joseph’s Hospital, has actively engaged in an abortive procedure that is immoral. Thus far, you (CHW) have insisted that you are not doing anything wrong, but that your interpretation of the ERD’s simply differs with my own. According to Catholic teaching though, there cannot be a “tie” so to speak in this debate. Rather, it is my duty as the chief shepherd in the diocese to interpret whether the actions at St. Joseph’s and other hospitals meet the criteria of fulfilling the parameters of the moral law as seen in the ERD’s.

    Until this point in time, you have not acknowledged my authority to settle this question but have only provided opinions of ethicists that agree with your own opinion and disagree with mine. …

    After stating & restating his authorty & why it is his duty, Bishop Olmsted makes his conclusion:

    it is now my position that our deliberations regarding the tragic abortion at St. Joseph’s Hospital have gone on for far too long, and I believe that there is little hope that you intend to conclude that this case constitutes a violation of the ERD’s.

    [Reminder: The woman went to the emergency room. Her doctors determined the pregnancy was killing her (her heart couldn’t take the strain). They saved her life. The “tragedy”, for Olmsted, is the fetus was “killed” a short time before it would have died anyway.]

    … The conclusion I take away from this analysis is that you do not intend to change anything. … you have discounted my legitimate authority. Because of this I must now act.  I do so not only to assure that no further such violations of the ERD’s occur, but also to repair the grave scandal to the Christian faithful that has resulted from the procedure that took place at St. Joseph’s and the subsequent public response of CHW. …

    These are Bishop Olmsted’s demands:

    … I require the following in order for me to postpone any further canonical action directed against St. Joseph’s Hospital:
    1. CHW must acknowledge in writing that the medical procedure that resulted in the abortion at St. Josephs’ Hospital was a violation of ERD 47, and so will never occur again at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
    2. CHW must agree to a review and certification process …
    3. CHW must agree [staff training on ERD’s] as overseen by either the National Catholic Bioethics Center or the Medical Ethics Board of the Diocese of Phoenix.

    This is Bishop Olmsted’s threat:

    Failure to fulfill these three requirements will lead me to decree the suspension of my endorsement of St. Joseph’s Hospital, …

    That would mean removal of the sacrament from all chapels & prohibition of masses & notices in the Catholic press. He seems all beside himself that that CHW won’t nod and be properly contrite and ask for forgiveness.

    He doesn’t mention the woman’s life/health. He does make mention of the “dignity of human life” … but the letter is mostly about CHW being wrong to not acknowledge his authority. I don’t know how much the earlier contacts were more about respecting life & there could have been a miricle or if it was always mostly about his authority & CHW not obeying.

  • colleen

    The Bishop, claiming he is “moral”, wants — in effect — the hospital to treat women like livestock, since it declares itself as “Catholic”. Heh. He uses the word “shepherd”, refering to himself. In his view, If a woman can not successfully complete a pregnancy it’s permissible — “moral” — to let her die through inaction.

    As I understand it, it’s not simply permissible to withhold the the treatment necessary to save her life, it’s obligatory.  The Bishop requires that the unnecessary deaths of women whose bodies cannot sustain a pregnancy  become hospital policy despite the fact that this policy is in direct violation of federal law, medical ethics and basic decency.In other words, saving the life of women whose bodies cannot sustain a pregnancy in a hospital setting is immoral.  Killing pregnant women by withholding medical treatment upholds the “dignity of human life”.

    And Bishop Olmstead is not speaking as an individual with an opinion, he’s speaking as the Church.


  • julie-watkins

    Thanks for the catch. I think the hard-core Catholic line is so far outside norms that if I’m not very careful with my words I’ll soften it because it’s so … wrong.

    I used the word “opinion” because I don’t want to imply a “no true Scotsman” definition of “Catholic”. I think Sister Mary McBride, for instance, still considers herself “Catholic”. Despite Olmsted’s pronouncements, I think how the ERD’s are interpreted will depend on the diosese & the hospital.

  • aligatorhardt

    Your comment make me think that God has created this problem, it is not by the choice of the mother. The mother did not create her condition. The Bishop places himself above God in this matter. His delusions of grandeur are evidence of his insanity.

  • colleen

    Despite Olmsted’s pronouncements, I think how the ERD’s are interpreted will depend on the diosese & the hospital.

    It will be interesting to see what happens. My understanding of Catholicism  is that it’s authority rests and resides  in a rigid patriarchal hierarchical structure and that, like Bart Stupak, the members of that  hierarchical structure do not consult the nuns (or any women, for that matter).

    In other words, besides the USCCB and those above him in the hierarchy the Bishop IS the diocese or at least the Church’s main  authority within the diocese.  As the far right Catholics are so fond of telling us, the Catholic church is not a democratic institution.