St. Joseph's Hospital no longer Catholic

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PHOENIX -- A pregnancy that was terminated to save the mother's life has cost St. Joseph's Hospital its Catholic affiliation.

Bishop Thomas Olmstead, the head of the Phoenix Diocese, made the announcement Tuesday morning, saying St. Joseph's Hospital "cannot be considered Catholic" because it and its parent company, Catholic Healthcare West, are "not committed to following the teaching of the Catholic Church."

This goes back to November 2009, when a woman who was 11 weeks pregnant went to St. Joe's with pulmonary hypertension, which limits the ability of the heart and lungs to function properly. Hormones produced by the uterus during pregnancy seriously exacerbate the dangerous condition. The medical staff believed the young woman was close to death. In order to save her life, doctors terminated the pregnancy.

Olmstead said the surgery was an abortion and threatened to pull the hospital's Catholic affiliation if it did not comply with conditions to ensure that it is adhering to the church's teachings.

The nun who was part of the decision to perform the procedure, Sister Margaret McBride, had already been excommunicated.

The case sparked national debate over the church's role in medical decisions.

In a statement release at the time of McBride's excommunications, St. Joseph's Hospital said its professionals "face life and death decisions every day." St. Joe's follows "clinical and religious directives" but not everything is spelled out and that is when an "ethics committee is convened."

McBride, who was a hospital administrator, was part of that committee in this case. She approved the procedure.

"An unborn child is not a disease," Olmstead said in response to the hospital's statement. "While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother's life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means and if a Catholic formally cooperates in the procurement of an abortion, they are automatically excommunicated by that action."

The hospital, however, has maintained that the procedure in this case less like a standard abortion and more like removing a pregnant woman's uterus due to uterine cancer. Church doctrine allows that procedure.

Olmstead disagrees with that assertion.

"In this case, the baby was healthy and there were no problems with the pregnancy; rather, the mother had a disease that needed to be treated. But instead of treating the disease, St. Joseph's medical staff and ethics committee decided that the healthy, 11-week-old baby should be directly killed"

In a statement released after Olmstead's announcement, Linda Hunt, the president of St. Joseph's Hospital, reaffirmed the decision made by the medical staff and ethics committee last year.

“Consistent with our values of dignity and justice, if we are presented with a situation in which a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life, our first priority is to save both patients. If that is not possible we will always save the life we can save, and that is what we did in this case,” said Hunt. “We continue to stand by the decision, which was made in collaboration with the patient, her family, her caregivers, and our Ethics Committee. Morally, ethically, and legally we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save.”

In a letter written last month to the president of Catholic Healthcare West, the parent company of St. Joseph's Hospital, Olmstead said he wanted more oversight of the hospital to make sure it complies with Catholic healthcare rules. He also wants to educate medical staff about those rules. In addition, he wants acknowledgment that he was right and the hospital was wrong in its interpretation of the church's directive on "indirect abortions."

"There cannot be a tie in this debate," Olmsted wrote. "Until this point in time, you have not acknowledged my authority to settle this question."

The Phoenix Diocese Catholic Healthcare West had been in talks for months

Last month Olmstead said that St. Joe's needs to "align itself with the policies of the National Catholic Bioethics Center or submit to a review of its policies ... to remain in good standing with the Catholic Church."

If Olmstead pulls his endorsement of the hospital, St. Joe's would not be able to hold mass at the hospital. Communion wafers that Catholics believe to be the body of Christ would also be removed from the site.

Priests and church ministers would still be available to care for patients if requested, which is the case at most other hospitals.

It's not clear how losing Olmstead's approval might affect the relationship between St. Joe's and its donors, contractors and doctors.

While St. Joseph's Hospital, the Valley's oldest hospital, has no official connection with the bishop, it was founded in 1895 by a Catholic religious order called the Sisters of Mercy.

Catholic Healthcare West, which was formed in 1986, is the eighth largest hospital provider in the country and does not rely on local dioceses to fund any of its hospitals, including St. Joe's.

Olmstead's decision on St. Joe's was originally expected last Friday, but that deadline was extended. Some took that as a positive sign.

“Though we are deeply disappointed, we will be steadfast in fulfilling our mission,” Hunt said. “St. Joseph’s hospital will remain faithful to our mission of care, as we have for the last 115 years. Our caregivers deliver extraordinary medical care and share an unmatched commitment to the well-being of the communities they serve. Nothing has or will change in that regard.”

Hunt said St. Joe's will not be changing its name or its mission, both of which were established when the hospital was founded.