Ariz. diocese revokes hospital's status after surgery

St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix may not call itself Catholic due to life-saving 2009 procedure ending pregnancy

Published December 21, 2010 7:06PM (EST)

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix stripped a major hospital of its affiliation with the church Tuesday because of a surgery that ended a woman's pregnancy to save her life.

Bishop Thomas Olmsted called the 2009 procedure an abortion and said St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center -- recognized internationally for its neurology and neurosurgery practices -- violated ethical and religious directives of the national Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"In the decision to abort, the equal dignity of mother and her baby were not both upheld," Olmsted said at a news conference announcing the decision. "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."

St. Joseph's does not receive direct funding from the church, but in addition to losing its Catholic endorsement, the 697-bed hospital will no longer be able to celebrate Mass and must remove the Blessed Sacrament from its chapel.

In a statement, St. Joseph's President Linda Hunt said the hospital will comply with Olmsted's decision, but she defended its actions.

"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," Hunt said. "Morally, ethically, and legally, we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save."

The woman is in her 20s had a history of abnormally high blood pressure when she learned of her pregnancy. After she was admitted to the hospital with worsening symptoms, doctors determined her risk of death was nearly 100 percent.

The hospital's ethics team concluded the pregnancy could be ended under the church's ethical directives because "the goal was not to end the pregnancy but save the mother's life," the hospital said.

Hunt said, "St. Joseph's will continue through our words and deeds to carry out the healing ministry of Jesus."

Olmsted's announcement came after months of talks between the Diocese, the hospital and the hospital's parent company, Catholic Healthcare West.

"Unfortunately, subsequent communications with leadership at St. Joseph's and (Catholic Healthcare West) have only eroded my confidence about their commitment to the church's ethical and religious directives for healthcare," Olmsted said. "They have not addressed in an adequate manner the scandal caused by the abortion."

He said he recently learned that Catholic Healthcare West also is responsible for contraceptive counseling, voluntary sterilization, and other practices he said violate the ethical and religious directives.

St. Joseph's is home to the Barrow Neurological Institute, where musician Bret Michaels was treated after he suffered a brain hemorrhage in April. The institute is home to the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.

By Amanda Lee Myers

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Abortion Catholicism