Saving a woman’s life

A woman who has progressed about 11 weeks into a pregnancy presents in the emergency room with pulmonary hypertension, a potentially life-threatening condition, the risk of which is only exacerbated by her pregnancy. Attempts are made to address the condition while avoiding harming the pregnancy, but those attempts fail.

Attending physicians determine that if the woman is to survive the condition, her pregnancy must be terminated. After going through the necessary administrative procedures, the doctors terminate the pregnancy.

This anecdote is based on an actual situation that occurred at St John’s Hospital in Phoenix, a Catholic hospital. In response to it, the patient was "automatically excommunicated" according to press reports, and the hospital administrator who signed off on the abortion was rebuked by higher Church officials, along with a new rule being enacted that will, in essence, ensure that no pregnancy is intentionally terminated in a Catholic hospital.

In response to this event, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is trying to put pressure on the United States Department of Health and Human Services to have them pressure the Catholic Church, which owns more than 1 in 8 hospital beds in the United States, to relax this rule to allow for emergency situations such as the case that presented in Phoenix.

Yet if you go to pro-life web sites, what will they say? Likely that the ACLU is trying to "force" Catholic hospitals and Catholic doctors to perform abortions.

Umm… no.

Let me be clear: I am in no way talking about high-risk pregnancies. A pregnancy may be deemed "high risk" based on an assessment of the risk of complications. What I am discussing in this article is a complication that has developed into a life-threatening emergency that has presented at the ER.

Let’s break down the Phoenix case. Now courtesy of Federal and Arizona privacy laws, there is a lot we cannot know, but there is plenty we can presume based simply on the fact that this was a medical event at a Catholic hospital. Courtesy of the privacy laws, the one crucial aspect of the encounter that is locked away is what caused the doctors to determine that the abortion was necessary.

Presumably there is at least one doctor, who we can only presume is Catholic and anti-abortion, at a Catholic hospital, who determined that terminating the pregnancy was necessary to save the patient. Likely this decision was reviewed by at least one other physician, possibly more. After all, we’re talking about an abortion at a Catholic hospital — they’d want to make sure they were doing the right thing. But one thing is apparent from the scenario: No one was coerced into it, except maybe the patient as her options were either terminate the pregnancy or die carrying it.

The "forcing doctors" line is one of the latest tactics out of the pro-life movement, most recently enacted with a fervor after the Obama administration started talking about scaling back the "provider refusal rule". Remember the pro-life backlash on that one? "They want to force doctors to perform abortions".

Let me make this clear (don’t make me turn up the font): No one is trying to force doctors to perform abortions. No one is trying to force doctors to do anything. The pursuit of the ACLU is in nothing more than ensuring a uniform standard of care across all hospitals that receive public money, including Catholic hospitals.

What this would mean is this: if a pregnant woman presents in an emergency room at any hospital with an emergency condition for which the attending physicians determine that terminating the pregnancy is necessary to save the woman’s life, that hospital will do what it has deemed necessary without fear of punishment or reprisal against the physicians and/or nurses and hospital administrators.

Will this result in doctors and hospitals being "forced" to perform abortions? Not by the government. If a hospital is forced to accommodate an abortion, it will be because the attending physicians and any reviewing physicians determine it to be necessary to save a woman’s life.

Let us not overlook the tragedy here. A woman had little choice but to terminate her pregnancy if she wanted to continue living. The response of the Catholic Church to this woman and the hospital where the abortion occurred is reprehensible at best.

But while there was tragedy, we cannot forget that a woman is alive today because of the extremely difficult decision of her attending physicians. Yet the response by the Catholic Church provides the impression that they would have preferred she died just to preserve a principle of "no abortions performed here".

That, however, would have been a greater tragedy because it would not have been just the woman who died, but the child she was carrying. Let us not overlook or forget that.


Santorum, Rick. (2010, October 10). "ACLU Wrong to Attempt to Force Catholic Hospitals to Do Some Abortions".

Ertelt, Steven. (2010, July 8). "ACLU Claims Catholic Hospitals Refusing Life-Saving Abortions for Women".

American Civil Liberties Union. (2010, July 1). "ACLU Asks Government To Ensure That Religiously-Affiliated Hospitals Provide Emergency Reproductive Health Services". [Press Release]

Clancy, Michael. (2010, May 19). "Nun at St. Joseph’s Hospital rebuked over abortion to save woman". The Arizona Republic.