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August 2010

In 2006, actors Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher starred in an action adventure drama that works at a number of levels.  On its surface, The Guardian tells the story of Ben Randall, a highly decorated Coast Guard swimmer assigned to train recruits, a gifted but troubled one in particular.  At a deeper level, it is a story about U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmers, men and women who risk their lives to save those stranded at sea.

Deeper still, The Guardian brings us face to face with the life and death decisions that rescuers must make.  Randall tells his recruits that they will face situations in which they cannot save everyone crying for help.  People will beg them for miracles that they cannot deliver.  In their efforts to save some, others will die.  Randall just as easily could have been talking about firemen.  Or medical workers.

In 2009 a pregnant woman, the married mother of three, was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension.  Her physicians believed that she would almost certainly die if her pregnancy continued.  Much remains unknown, but last November the hospital approved an abortion.  The aborted baby was eleven weeks old.  The abortion was performed at St. Joseph’s Hospital, a Catholic hospital in Phoenix.  The ethics committee administrator concurring in the decision was Sister Margaret McBride, a Catholic nun.  Under longstanding Church law, she was automatically excommunicated for cooperating in an abortion.

Much has been written about the matter.  Catholic-bashers have done what they do best: invoke the sexual abuse scandal in order to belittle the Church’s authority and position.  More thoughtful critics argue that the Church is insensitive not only to Sister McBride but also to the mother.  They claim that first priority must be give to the life in front of them.  But in all ways, the Church’s position is correct.

The field of medical obstetrics has come to recognize that every pregnancy involves two patients: the mother and the unborn child.  That recognition parallels what the Church has recognized for centuries: there are two persons, mother and unborn child.  Each has equal dignity and value in the God’s eyes and must have the same in ours.  One life may not be preferred over the other.  It is true even when death is a probability, even a virtual certainty.  If a husband will die without a liver transplant, his wife may not be killed to supply the liver.  The rule is no different when a pregnancy is involved.  A good outcome can never justify an immoral path in getting there.

The Church teaches that treating a pregnant woman might result in the death of an unborn baby.  The morality of the death becomes a question of intent.  If a doctor must remove a woman’s uterus to treat her cancer, the unborn baby’s death, though foreseeable, is an unintended secondary effect.  By contrast, an immoral act occurs when the intended purpose of a procedure is to kill the baby, and by doing so, treat the mother.  That is always morally wrong.  An unborn baby is not a disease.

So what was the problem in Phoenix?  There were two.  On the surface, a decision was made to intentionally abort the unborn baby.  The baby didn’t die during treatment of the mother’s hypertension.  The baby was killed as treatment of her hypertension. Sister McBride, a Catholic ethicist, concurred in the decision to kill a human being.  The baby was probably dismembered, the usual fate of an eleven-week aborted baby.

At a deeper level, Sister McBride and her hospital wrongly placed their trust in medical science rather than in God.   Medical predictions, even those coming from top-flight professionals, are not infallible.  Predictions as to the expected time of death are often inaccurate, and they can never be the basis of a decision to kill.  Doctors don’t control death; God does.  Those who decided that the baby should be killed may have interrupted a miracle.  God may have been planning to give the world another glimpse of His Providence by letting the mother and baby survive.

But even if not, God is still at work through the heroic witness of those who trust in Him.  In 1962, Dr. Gianna Baretta Mola, a married mother of two, developed uterine cancer during her third pregnancy.  Refusing an abortion, Gianna endured a horrific labor to deliver a healthy baby girl.  Gianna died nine days later.  In 2004, her title changed from “doctor” to “Saint.”  She now intercedes for physicians, mothers, and unborn babies.  And her witness inspired the Gianna Center, the first Catholic pro-life health care center for women.  God’s Providence works through death.  Just ask His Son.

As for Sister McBride, she holds the key to ending her self-imposed excommunication. It is the sacrament of Penance.  Just as Jesus came that all may be saved, our Church awaits her return with open arms.  We should pray that it happens.

In the movie, the guardian was a legendary underwater swimmer who kept victims from drowning until help arrived.  Rescuers knew him as a “fisher of men.”  Sounds familiar.  It was the role of Jesus’ Apostles.  It is the role of His Church.  As our culture drowns in a sea of death, our Church remains the earth’s greatest defender of human life, no matter how helpless.   She is the guardian of life.

Forever may she be.

Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics.  He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois, where they raise their six kids.

©Paul V. Esposito 2010.  Culture of Life.  Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted. Comments?  Visit us at

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