06/05/2010 10:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Abortion and the Life of the Woman: When Hypothetical Ethics Debate Collides with Reality

The classes I enjoyed most during seminary were ethics courses. We would debate particular questions about morality addressing issues of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice.

Rarely was a definitive conclusion reached; no one had sole possession of the truth; and the philosophical question was always hypothetical.

This latter point was particularly noteworthy because it allowed us the luxury of debating our sense of morality without having to actually make a difficult decision.

Sister of Mercy Margaret McBride, a Catholic nun and administrator at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, was not so fortunate.

Unlike seminary, she was held accountable for her moral position.

Last November, a 27-year-old woman was admitted to St. Joseph's Hospital. She was 11 weeks pregnant with her fifth child, and she was gravely ill. Doctors informed her that if she continued with the pregnancy, her risk of mortality was "close to 100 percent."

The patient was reportedly too ill to be moved to the operating room, let alone another hospital, agreed to an abortion. Herein lies the moral dilemma: She was at a Catholic hospital.

According to Catholic teachings, abortion under any circumstances is wrong. Therefore, the official church position would mandate the correct solution would be to let mother and child die.

However, the hospital felt the pregnancy could be terminated because of Directive 47 in the U.S. Catholic Church ethical guidelines for health care providers, allowing in some cases procedures that could kill the fetus to save the mother.

Based on this directive, McBride, who was also the diocese liaison, gave her approval for the procedure. The mother lived, but McBride was excommunicated.

According to the diocese, McBride was excommunicated because she "held a position of authority at the hospital and was frequently consulted on ethical matters. She gave her consent that the abortion was a morally good and allowable act according to church teaching. Furthermore, she admitted this directly to Bishop (Thomas) Olmsted. Since she gave her consent and encouraged an abortion she automatically excommunicated herself from the church."

As a non-Catholic seated from my armchair perspective the punishment for McBride seems excessive. I understand she violated Catholic teachings, but was there something between doing nothing and excommunication that could have been handed down instead?

I also understand Catholic teachings view McBride's action as consenting in the death of an unborn child. Moreover, one cannot do evil to bring about good -- the end cannot justify the means.

But a strict adherence to Catholic teachings, where one allows the mother and child to die, hardly seems practical, especially when presented with that scenario in the moment.

Though I risk stating the obvious, there is a moral inconsistency in the treatment of McBride. If the decision to excommunicate her was based on violation of strict Catholic teachings, it was far more public and punitive than anything done to the priests, who were allowed to molest children, in some cases, for decades.

The misogynistic double standard is painfully glaring.

One individual makes a difficult decision that is far more complex than searching for the right answer in an ethical handbook and is kicked out of the church. But those who knowingly abused their authority and trust with the most vulnerable members of their community in many cases were allowed to continue their ministry, and none received the punishment handed down to McBride.

The Catholic abuse scandal continues to be a global phenomenon that also provided a cover-up that went well beyond the local parishes involved.

But moral inconsistency is hardly the exclusive domain of Catholicism, it is common to all who participate in reality. Moreover, it seems the decision to excommunicate McBride was correct based on the teachings of the church.

Some would argue McBride was guilty of an infraction equally as abhorrent as the abusive priest. But doesn't one's heart and intent count for something?

Unfortunately for McBride and her diocese, this was not a hypothetical to be debated in seminary or a philosophy course. It was a rare moment when one's beliefs were put to the test in the heat of a crisis.

But like my memorable ethical debates, while there is a truth in this matter to be realized by each individual, "the" truth, which is so desperately sought, remains just beyond the reach and comprehension of everyone concerned.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at or visit his Web site