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Catholic Health Association defends Ariz. hospital


By Joe Carlson
Posted: December 22, 2010 - 9:30 am ET
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Contradicting a local bishop responsible for determining compliance with Roman Catholic healthcare ethics, Catholic Health Association President and CEO Sister Carol Keehan is defending the actions of a large Phoenix hospital that saw its official religious status removed this week over what the Phoenix diocese determined to be ethical lapses.

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St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, the largest hospital in Arizona at 697 beds, was officially labeled non-Catholic on Tuesday, 115 years after its founding by an order of Catholic nuns, because hospital ethicists in November 2009 allowed a mother of four to terminate her 11-week pregnancy after discovering she had a serious health condition.

Bishop Thomas Olmsted said the American bishops' rules forbid abortion in all but the narrowest circumstances, such as when a pregnant woman has a cancerous uterus and active treatment of the disease has the indirect effect of killing the fetus. St. Joseph's President and CEO Linda Hunt said the case in question was such a circumstance, because the woman had a heart condition that threatened her life and was being aggravated by her pregnancy.

"Our medical staff did try to save both lives," Hunt said in a statement e-mailed from corporate parent Catholic Healthcare West. "We will always try to save both lives. In this case it was impossible. Rather than let both the mother and the baby die, we saved the only life we could."

Olmsted has publicly disagreed with such statements. "When I met with officials of the hospital to learn more of the details of what occurred, it became clear that, in the decision to abort, the equal dignity of mother and her baby were not both upheld," the bishop said in a statement Tuesday.

Later Tuesday evening, Keehan defended St. Joseph's and CHW, praising the system's "long and stellar history" of protecting life.

"They had been confronted with a heartbreaking situation," Keehan said of the situation at St. Joseph's in an e-mail. "They carefully evaluated the patient's situation and correctly applied the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care to it, saving the only life that was possible to save."

The Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which writes and publishes the ethical directives, issued a statement in June clarifying that the American bishops believe that any surgical procedure which directly targets a fetus for abortion is considered immoral, even if its indirect benefit is to improve the health of the mother. The bishops on Wednesday declined to directly address the issue.

Keehan has been at odds with the bishops throughout 2010 for her decision to contradict the church's official condemnation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which the religious officials said would lead to public funding of abortions. The CHA disputed that characterization, and the law was passed after Catholic Democrats voted in favor of it, setting off waves of recrimination among staunch abortion opponents.

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