Sister Margaret McBride, a Catholic nun and a long time administrator at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, has been excommunicated by her local Phoenix bishop, Thomas J Olmsted, after she agreed with a hospital ethics committee that an 11-week-old fetus had to be aborted in order to save the life of a mother.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted stated the Sister of Mercy was "automatically excommunicated" because of the action. She has also been demoted in her job.

The patient concerned had a rare and often fatal condition in which the pregnancy can cause the death of the mother.

In a statement, Suzanne Pfister, a hospital vice president, said while the hospital is a Catholic institution, the directives do not cover all the emergencies that arise.

"In this tragic case, treatment required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy," Pfister said.

The patient's condition, pulmonary hypertension, interferes with the ability of the heart and lungs to function and is often made fatal by pregnancy.”

McBride was part of the ethics committee discussion about the surgery, which was described as very urgent and agreed with the abortion to save the life of the mother.

In a statement, the Phoenix diocese confirmed that Bishop Olmsted learned of the case after the surgery.

"I am gravely concerned by the fact that an abortion was performed several months ago in a Catholic hospital in this diocese," Olmsted said.

"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.

"The Catholic Church will continue to defend life and proclaim the evil of abortion without compromise, and must act to correct even her own members if they fail in this duty," the bishop said.

Pfister stated McBride has been transferred "to another position in the hospital to focus on a number of new strategic initiatives."

According to the medical directives at the hospital, abortion is not permitted under any circumstances - even to save the life of the mother.

On the other hand, a second directive says that "operations, treatments and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted . . . even if they will result in the death of the unborn child."

A letter sent Monday from Catholic Healthcare West, signed by Sister Judith Carle, board chairwoman, and President and CEO Lloyd Dean, asking for more clarification, said the condition 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."

James J. Walter, professor of bioethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, told the Arizona Republic that a pregnancy couldn’t be terminated as a means to an end of saving the life of a mother who is suffering from a different condition.

Asked by the newspaper if the church position prefers the mother and child to die, rather than sparing the life of one of them, Walters said the hope is that both would survive.