Induction Procedures Raise Moral Dilemma

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — At least two Catholic hospital systems in the United States are performing a procedure known as early induction for fetuses with anomalies incompatible with life.

The morally problematic procedure has been likened to an abortion by some pro-lifers.

Such a procedure is performed on pregnant women whose babies have been diagnosed as having conditions that would make their life outside the womb very short, such as the failure of the brain or kidneys to develop.

Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage and Loyola University Health System in Chicago have both stated they perform this procedure at or after 24 weeks of pregnancy, the time when a baby is usually considered to be viable. The protocol is in place for the other three parts of Providence's 31-hospital system, in Washington, Oregon and California.

Early inducement is not an uncommon procedure. It brings on labor before term (usually considered 37 weeks or after) for any number of reasons, usually for the medical care of either the mother or the child.

However, in early induction for fetuses with anomalies incompatible with life, the induction is done because the child has anomalies that make it virtually impossible for the child to live for very long, if at all, after birth.

Alaska Right to Life's president, Ed Wassell, along with two other members of Alaska Right to Life, met in May with the chief executive of the Providence Alaska system, Al Parrish, staff ethicist Maria Wallington, and Gene O'Hara, vice president for mission. The hospital officials admitted openly to the group that they do perform these procedures at or after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Right to Life informed Archbishop Roger Schwietz that these inductions were taking place at Providence.

He and his group met again with hospital officials in July, arguing about the use of early induction. The former vicar general of the archdiocese, Father Steven Moore, was present at the July meeting, and the ethicist for the entire Providence system, an Episcopalian named Jan Heller who is based at its Seattle office, participated by speakerphone.

Wassell told the Register that he asked a number of times during the meeting what the reasons were for performing these inductions, a question for which he could not get a clear answer. Officials did admit they were being done for anen-cephaly and renal agenesis, a condition where kidneys fail to form, he said, but they did not say what other reasons there are.

Officials from both Providence Health System and the Archdiocese of Anchorage turned down requests for interviews on this subject. They did, however, issue this brief joint statement Sept. 29: “Earlier this year, Ed Wassell, president of Alaska Right to Life, approached Al Parrish, executive of Providence Health System in Alaska, requesting clarification on the early induction practices and guidelines of Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage.

“After further consultation with ethicists, Providence Health System, in collaboration with Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz, determined that the practices are consistent with the [U.S. bishops'] Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. Providence leadership continues to be in dialogue with Archbishop Schwietz to assure that guidelines in development reflect Catholic teachings.”

Wassell denied that he was “seeking clarification” on the procedure. “We were asking them to end the use of the procedure at the hospital,” he said.

‘Morally Problematic’

The Church teaches that it is always wrong directly to will the destruction of innocent human life. But it is not always wrong to perform an action that causes harm to human life as a side effect.

However, the decision must be based on the principle of double effect: What you do must be morally acceptable in itself. If it has a bad consequence:

• you can't seek good from that bad consequence;

• the bad consequence must not be intended;

• there must be a sufficient balance between the good effect and the bad effect.

The only therapeutic reason given by hospital officials for early induction was “to relieve familial distress,” according to Wassell.

Providence officials did tell Wassell that if Archbishop Schwietz told them to stop performing the procedure, they would.

From then on, Wassell said, Right to Life stopped talking with the hospital and started talking with the archbishop to persuade him to take action.