Sometimes, Abortion Is The Pro-Life Answer

Sometimes, Abortion Is The Pro-Life Answer February 10, 2021

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All abortion is wrong. No abortion should ever be allowed. If a Catholic were to support any abortion, they go against church teaching and should be excommunicated. We must get serious about abortion. Until we do so, nothing else matters. Abortion is never acceptable, and anyone who thinks otherwise are morally depraved and should not be supported either.

Such sentiments are commonly held and proclaimed by Catholics who believe they are what Catholic teaching dictates. However, any serious examination of Catholic moral theology will reveal the opposite is true. Instead, we learn that not all abortions are of equal moral weight, and indeed, at times, Catholic moral reasoning allows some to be permitted. Not all who have had an abortion, not all those who have been involved in an abortion, should be seen as having done something wrong.

One of the major problems around any discussion of abortion is that people are not talking about the same thing. There are two major ways abortion can be defined and, as such, it is often best for those discussing abortion to indicate what exactly they are talking about.

The first definition is the medical definition; it tells us that an abortion is the premature ending of a pregnancy; it can happen spontaneously or by some medical procedure. Technically speaking, a miscarriage is an abortion, and so if laws are written which penalize women who have had abortions, those who suffer a miscarriage can be (and have been) penalized by such laws.

The second definition is to say an abortion is the procedure used to terminate a pregnancy which results in the death of the fetus.

Whatever definition one uses is important, but it is important to realize even abortions following the second definition are not always impermissible. Catholic teaching allows medical procedures used to save the life of a mother due to some danger, such as cancer, or an ectopic pregnancy, which results with the unintended consequence of the termination of the pregnancy and the death of the fetus. Since it is the result of a medically induced procedure, even if it is not the intended or desired result of that procedure, it would still qualify as an abortion under the second definition given above. If those using the second definition for abortion were to make it illegal for any abortion to be performed, then what is morally permissible would likewise be forbidden. The life of the mother would be shown to be without value according to the letter of the law. And it would prove that the law is not about preservation of life, about promoting morality, but rather, it would show that the law is about control even as it undermines the value of the life of the pregnant woman. Those who would support such a law indicate that they don’t believe that all life should be given the same dignity and respect as each other. Outlawing all abortions, saying no abortion should be permitted, is ultimately a position which cannot be said to be pro-life, as it would lead to the disregard of women and the value of their lives.

How, exactly, does Catholic teaching allow for some forms of abortion? Through the principle of double effect. That principle tells us that a given action is permitted even if it indirectly, and so unintentionally, causes some evil as a result, if the action itself is normally good (or at least neutral) and there is a grave or proportionate reason for performing such an action. Saving the life of a mother is such an act. If a pregnant woman has cancer, and it were necessary for her to have chemotherapy in order to survive, even if it will kill the fetus, she can receive the chemotherapy. Since her treatment would cause the termination of her pregnancy, it would be a medically induced procedure which led to the death of the fetus, meaning, it would truly be an abortion. Similarly if a woman had an ectopic pregnancy, whereby the fetus did not implant in the uterus but instead implanted itself someplace else such as in the fallopian tube, and nothing is done to save her life, she would die, doctors are permitted to perform life-saving surgery on her, even if the sad consequence is that the fetus will not  survive. Thus, in the USCCB’s Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, we read:

Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child. [1]

The result of such a life-saving procedure, therefore, is an abortion, and that means Catholic teaching says abortion can be permitted in some situations. Indeed, one can make the argument why such life-saving procedures are the most morally acceptable course of action when a pregnant woman needs it. This is not to say it would be an easy decision to make, but when dealing with real-world problems, often the best decision will always include elements we wish did not have to be involved.

All our actions, and therefore, the moral qualifications for our actions, must be based upon the object of our act, that is, whether or not they will for and seek after the greatest good. “The primary and decisive element for moral judgment is the object of the human act, which establishes whether it is capable of being ordered to the good and to the ultimate end, which is God.” [2] Preserving the dignity of all life is important. This includes preserving the dignity of an expecting mother. All life, not just the life of a fetus, is invaluable. If we do not preserve the dignity of women but rather undermine it by saying it is of less value than of those who have not yet been born, we end up undermining the value of life itself. For if we say someone who has been born has less right to life than someone who has not yet been born, we show that it is not life which is invaluable, and once we do that, we also undermine the value of the life of the fetus as well.

If we want to save life, if we want to promote the dignity of life, we must do so by our actions. We must truly demonstrate all life is invaluable. We must help the poor and needy. We must help refugees. The more we focus on doing good for others, helping people out of difficulties, the more society helps women in need, abortions will decline; while, on the other hand, the more we try to control women, the more we undermine the value of life, the more we engage legalism over compassion, we find abortion itself becomes much more common.

Catholic teaching, through the principle of double effect, allows for various medical procedures which, sadly, result in the termination of a pregnancy. This shows that, at times, abortions are permissible. Indeed, those who are pro-life must recognize they are what is needed, not because the abortion is intended, but because what is necessary for the sake of the mother should be done even if it sadly results in the termination of the pregnancy. If we understand this, we can and should begin to understand why the rhetoric around abortion has become dangerous even as it is disingenuous. It can and will be used to endanger the lives of women, indeed, in having many women needlessly die. How can that be pro-life? It is not. But that is the problem with much of the pro-life rhetoric. It is not pro-life. And this is why, when those who are involved in the movement look to other life issues, they find all kinds of excuses to ignore the dignity of life. They are not interested in the dignity of life. They are interested in something else. Their actions, their words, prove this.


[1] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. Fifth Edition.” (11-17-2009), 26.

[2] St. John Paul II,  Veritatis Splendor. Vatican translation. ¶79.

 

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