updated 5/15/2010 10:21:42 PM ET 2010-05-16T02:21:42

A nun and administrator at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix has been reassigned and rebuked by the local bishop for agreeing that a severely ill woman needed an abortion to survive.

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Sister Margaret McBride was on an ethics committee that included doctors that consulted with a young woman who was 11 weeks pregnant late last year, The Arizona Republic newspaper reported on its website Saturday. The woman was suffering from a life-threatening condition that likely would have caused her death if she hadn't had the abortion at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center.

Hospital officials defended McBride's actions but confirmed that she has been reassigned from her job as vice president of mission integration at the hospital. They said in a statement that saving the mother required that the fetus be aborted.

"In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother's life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy," hospital vice president Susan Pfister said in an e-mail to the newspaper. She said the facility owned by Catholic Healthcare West adheres to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services but that the directives do not answer all questions.

‘Automatically excommunicated’
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, head of the Phoenix Diocese, indicated in a statement that the Roman Catholic involved was "automatically excommunicated" because of the action. The Catholic Church allows the termination of a pregnancy only as a secondary effect of other treatments, such as radiation of a cancerous uterus.

"I am gravely concerned by the fact that an abortion was performed several months ago in a Catholic hospital in this diocese," Olmsted said in a statement sent to The Arizona Republic. "I am further concerned by the hospital's statement that the termination of a human life was necessary to treat the mother's underlying medical condition.

"An unborn child is not a disease. While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother's life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means."

Olmsted added that if a Catholic "formally cooperates" in an abortion, he or she is automatically excommunicated.

Neither the hospital nor the bishop's office would say if Olmsted had a direct role in her demotion. He does not have control of the hospital as a business but is the voice of moral authority over any Catholic institution operating in the diocese.

Pulmonary hypertension
The patient, who hasn't been identified, was seriously ill with pulmonary hypertension. The condition limits the ability of the heart and lungs to function and is made worse, possibly even fatal, by pregnancy.

"This decision was made after consultation with the patient, her family, her physicians, and in consultation with the Ethics Committee, of which Sr. Margaret McBride is a member," the hospital said in a statement issued Friday.

A letter sent to Olmsted Monday by the board chairwoman and the president and CEO of CHW asks Olmsted to provide further clarification about the directives. The pregnancy, the letter says, carried a nearly certain risk of death for the mother.

"If there had been a way to save the pregnancy and still prevent the death of the mother, we would have done it," the letter says. "We are convinced there was not."

McBride declined to comment.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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