Bishop Strips Hospital of Catholic Status After Abortion

A scandal over an abortion is pitting the Catholic Church against a hospital.

December 22, 2010, 12:39 AM

Dec. 22, 2010— -- An Arizona hospital's decision to terminate a pregnancy to save a woman's life has resulted in the loss of its Catholic affiliation.

The fallout comes after a nun at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix allowed an abortion to take place to save the mother's life.

Last fall, a 27-year-old mother of four entered the hospital 11 weeks pregnant and was suffering from pulmonary hypertension.

Doctors said if her pregnancy wasn't terminated, she would likely die of heart failure - taking her unborn child with her.

The decision to terminate was approved by Sister Margaret McBride, a longtime senior administrator at the hospital. But when Bishop Thomas Olmstead of the Diocese of Phoenix heard about the abortion, he excommunicated McBride.

Having an abortion is against Catholic teachings.

Although the move caused an uproar, with some critics pointing out that even pedophile priests weren't excommunicated, Bishop Olmstead went a step further on Tuesday.

He stripped St. Joseph's Hospital of its affiliation with the Catholic Church.

He argued hospital officials did not try to save both the mother and child.

"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," Olmstead said.

However, St. Joseph Hospital's CEO Linda Hunt disagreed with that statement.

"Our first priority is to save both patients. If that is not possible, we always save the life we can save," said Hunt.

Life and Death Debate

Many in the medical community agree with the hospital rather than with the bishop.

"The bishop, rabbis and other people have really no place when it comes to deciding if a mother is going to live over an unborn child, or whether to die," said ABC News Medical Contributor Dr. Jacques Moritz.

"That decision is usually made by the healthcare professionals and it's best if it's left that way."

Dr. Christian Pettker, an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive services at Yale University's School of Medicine said it's common for Catholic-affiliated hospitals to be restricted in their reproductive services offerings.

"In this case, we are talking about a procedure that has a high certainty of protecting the life of the mother. This patient had pulmonary hypertension, with a risk of death associated with pregnancy estimated to be over 50 percent," said Petter. "It is one of a handful of conditions that even the most confident or experienced high-risk obstetrician will tell the patient not to get pregnant. The hospital committee that approved the procedure certainly considered it all very carefully, especially this patient's particular risk of death."

Hospital officials insist the severing of ties with the Catholic Church will have no practical implications for health care delivery although the bishop will no longer allow mass to be said at the hospital.

Hunt said that the hospital does not plan to change its name or its mission - established by the Sisters of Mercy in 1895.

"St. Joseph's will continue through our words and deeds to carry out the healing ministry of Jesus," Hunt said. "Our operations, policies, and procedures will not change," Hunt said in a statement on the hospital's website.

ABC News' Lara Salahi contributed to this report.