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Bishop Olmsted Is Wrong in the Abortion Controversy in Phoenix

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) December 21, 2010:   Thomas J. Olmsted, the Catholic bishop of Phoenix, Arizona, has stirred up an enormous amount of controversy about an abortion that was performed at a Catholic hospital in his diocese in November 2009. But there should be no ambiguity in this case because the medical professionals acted to save the mother's life.

At first blush, the controversy that Bishop Olmsted has stirred up in Phoenix may sound like an intra-church squabble. However, the squabble has direct public implications. Under medical emergencies non-Catholic pregnant women may be taken to the nearest Catholic hospital for medical attention. If the medical judgment should be that an abortion should be performed to save the mother's life, there might not be time in such circumstances to transport the woman to the closest non-Catholic hospital for the abortion. These were the actual circumstances involved in the abortion in November 2009.

But Bishop Olmsted thinks that there was something wrong ("immoral") about the decision that was made in November 2009 because he excommunicated the medical professionals and the moral professional who were Catholics. But Bishop Olmsted himself is wrong about the abortion involved in this case. The medical professionals and the moral professional at the hospital were right to save the mother's life. For this reason, Bishop Olmsted abused his authority as a bishop by excommunicating the Catholic medical professionals involved in making the morally correct and morally defensible decision.

More recently, Bishop Olmsted has threatened to sanction the hospital in question. Let us be clear here. The diocese of Phoenix does not fund the hospital. So the bishop's threatened sanctions would not involve cutting off funding, because there is no funding to be cut off. Instead, his threatened sanctions would involve his using diocesan websites to vilify the hospital as not being Catholic.

The most troubling of Bishop Olmsted's demands is that the hospital must "acknowledge in writing" that the procedure was an abortion. Let us be clear here. The procedure was an abortion. There can be no doubt about that much. But Bishop Olmsted is playing "Gotcha!" Moral reasoning is more complicated than he makes it sound.

His claim that the abortion was "immoral" (his term) is simple-minded, because the hospital has maintained all along that the abortion in question was an indirect abortion, to use the technical terminology of Catholic moral teaching. In plain English, the abortion was the result of the decision to save the mother's life. Thus the abortion was not carried out for the primary purpose of terminating the life of the fetus. The primary reason for the abortion was to save the mother's life.

In the Catholic moral tradition, two components should be considered to determine if an act is a moral act or an immoral act: (1) the act in and of itself and (2) the reason(s) for performing the act. For Bishop Olmsted to defend his claim that the abortion was "immoral" (his word), he should demonstrate that the reason(s) for it were wrong. But of course he has no relevant medical expertise for making such a medical determination. He is simply second-guessing the medical professionals who were involved in making the decision.

These two components can also be found in our American legal system. For example, by definition, I cannot accidentally murder someone. To be sure, I can deliberately murder someone. However, if I happened to kill someone accidentally, I would not have murdered the person, because murder by definition must be a deliberate act, not an accidental act. So there are the two components: (1) the act in and of itself (the killing of the person, in this example) and (2) my reason(s) for carrying out the act. In the absence of any reason for carrying out the killing, my accidental killing of the person is not by definition murder.

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Now, in the case of the abortion in Phoenix, the aborting of the life of the fetus is analogous to the killing in my hypothetical example.

However, the aborting of the fetus was not accidental. It was clearly understood beforehand that the fetus would be destroyed.

Thus the analogy with my hypothetical example does not seem to apply to the Phoenix case.

Nonetheless, let us consider the other point in my hypothetical example: the point about murder. By definition, murder involves the taking of innocent human life through deliberate human agency, not through some accidental action.

So was the abortion in Phoenix murder?

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As is well known, the highly charged accusation of "murder" has been made regarding legal abortion in the first trimester. The abortion in Phoenix was a legal abortion in the first trimester.

Because I have above accused Bishop Olmsted of taking a simple-minded position regarding the supposed immorality of the abortion in Phoenix, I hasten to add here that he has not, so far as I know, referred to the abortion in Phoenix as murder. Good for him.

Unfortunately, certain Catholic bishops have popularized the slogan, "Life begins at the moment of conception." Because of the ambiguity of the term "life" in this slogan, this slogan has been understood by some Catholics to mean that the termination of the egg that has been fertilized by sperm through deliberate human agency is murder.

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell
Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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