Monday, 24 May 2010

Nun excommunicated for allowing abortion

Various sources are reporting the excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride for allowing a fetus to be aborted which, if the termination had not taken place, would almost certainly have resulted in the deaths of both the mother and the fetus. Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead, after finding out about the abortion, ordered the excommuncation of Sister McBride, every Catholic involved with the decision and the procedure, and indeed the patient herself.

In decrying the doctrine of double effect (for which, ironically, we owe a debt to Catholic theology), Rev. John Ehrich, the medical ethics director for the Diocese of Phoenix stated: "She consented in the murder of an unborn child...There are some situations where the mother may in fact die along with her child. But — and this is the Catholic perspective — you can't do evil to bring about good. The end does not justify the means."

The notion of a medical ethics director abiding not by principles of medical ethics, but by substituting (or overlaying) his or her system informed by faith, is against all tradition of medicine as an activity designed to better the lot of the ill, rather than to better the lot of the decision-maker or his church. Decision-making in medical ethics should shun 'absolute' (deontological) approaches and instead adopt frameworks that help guide the clinician or other agent to the best possible outcome for the particular case being considered by incorporating a wide range of moral considerations. Such a system is exemplified by the decision-making approach from the University of British Colombia detailed here (PDF), or the 'Ethox structured approach' from the Ethox Centre at the University of Oxford, which I reproduce below:

Compare the principalist and reflective decision-making process depicted here which includes elements such as 'Does this option respect the persons involved', with the deontological approach used by Rev. John Ehrich in the case of Sister McBride. His ethics come from the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, Fourth Edition, which states, for example:
Directive 36: Compassionate and understanding care should be given to a person who is the victim of sexual assault...It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.
The difference between the two methods of decision-making, the Ethox approach designed to produce the best outcome for the patient, and the Catholic approach which will frequently have the opposite effect, is so stark as to negate the latter as a system of medical ethics; it is instead dogma, which should not be tolerated by medicine.

But let us submit ourselves to dogma for a moment. We glance at Directive 47 of the above document:
Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.
In light of such provision, the justice administered to Sister McBride appears rather summary and in stark contrast to the leniency shown to the paedophilic actions of thousands of priests.


  1. A flow chart for decision making. Beautiful.

  2. Well, what's so abhorrent about decision-trees and decision-making aids for ethical decision-making? We're happy to use them for 'hard' medical problems like whether a patient has a DVT...

    In the case of ethics I guess they can help to ensure comprehensive consideration of the elements that MIGHT be important in a particular decision. Most certainly not prescriptive...nobody (I've heard of) is advocating 'ethics robots' on the wards...