The Moral Dilemma With Ectopic Pregnancies

The Moral Dilemma With Ectopic Pregnancies May 27, 2007

As most of you know, my husband & I miscarried two weeks ago. As we were on our way to the hospital I begged God that I did not have an ectopic pregnancy–often called “tubal” pregnancy–because I dreaded the decision I would have to make. By God’s grace, my body spontaneously aborted our child. You may find my gratitude strange, but maybe you will better understand as you read.

Basic definitions first: Ectopic pregnancy: A pregnancy that occurs outside the uterus. Most occur inside the fallopian tubes, hence the common name “tubal pregnancy,” but 2% occur in other areas of the woman’s body. The developing baby is guaranteed death and the mother is at extremely high risk for death if the baby is not removed.
According to the CDC, about 100,000 ectopic pregnancies occur annually in the US alone.

From what I understand, the Church has been able to justify surgery that saves the woman’s life, but destroys her child, by using the principle of double effect. Moral theologians argue that it is the fallopian tube that is diseased and needs to be removed and the child will die due to the removal. So the intent is to remove tube to save woman’s life (good) but the result is child’s death (bad). The USCCB states that “In the case of extrauterine pregnancy, no intervention is morally licit which constitutes a direct abortion.”(National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Ethical and Religious Directives for Health Care Services (Washington, DC: NCCB, 1994), 28)

So what is the problem exactly? The problem is that the only permissible “treatment” for ectopic pregnancies causes further damage to the fallopian tubes, thereby greatly increasing the chances that the woman’s life will be endangered again and future children will be killed due to more ectopic pregnancies. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians

Previous ectopic pregnancy becomes a more significant risk factor with each successive occurrence. With one previous ectopic pregnancy treated by linear salpingostomy, the recurrence rate ranges from 15 to 20 percent, depending on the integrity of the contralateral tube.1,9 Two previous ectopic pregnancies increase the risk of recurrence to 32 percent, although an intervening intrauterine pregnancy lowers this rate.

This is why doctors and scientists looked for other solutions to treat these type of pregnancies. They wanted to remove the problem,i.e. the child and save the woman’s future children, thereby decreasing the risk to her. The other options are to take chemotherapy drugs, as my daughter’s Pediatrician did, and kill the child directly, but saving the fallopian tube and future children.

We can look at these numbers, but I KNOW many women who have had ectopic pregnancies. The Catholic women I know have had multiple ones. The non-Catholic ones usually only have one. I know this is purely anecdotal evidence but it does make an impact on me and my skepticism about the Church’s thoughts regarding this issue.

As a woman who has worked in pro-life work most of my life, the whole process of having my own child die, even if it was “only” 9 weeks along was very difficult to say the least. I still am emotionally raw from the event. The thought that I would have to ok any “treatment” that would destroy my child’s life ,whether by surgery or drugs, to save mine was absolutely terrible. I understand that the Church in this regard uses theological math to arrive at conclusion that allows the death of the child, but I don’t buy it. Why? Because the problem is that the child is in the wrong place. Simple as that. What does the Church allow when the child is located on the cervix or other locations of the body 2000 times a year in the US? The mother’s death because we cannot directly take the life of any human being?

Horrible isn’t it? What is a pro-life, Church abiding Catholic mother and father supposed to do? Pray to God it happens to a non-Catholic? In my case, it did not happen to me. And is it selfish for me to pray that it never happens to me?

If my post sounds confused or frustrated, it is. I am hoping Catholic physicians and moral theologians or Catholic mothers and fathers who have experienced this terrible situation write in. I am interested to hear your thoughts just in case my husband & I are ever placed in this situation. At the end of the day, we want to honor God and His will.

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  • Gina O’Brien

    I am very disgusted by this “article” you wrote! I, too am Catholic and pro-life and have had an ectopic pregnancy. How is this even a question to you what should be done? The baby will not survive. This is not a % chance – it will die. It cannot survive in the fallopian tube. The baby can’t be moved anywhere, so, we as Catholics should fret about saving the mother’s life?? This is just plain idiotic. What you are saying here to me is just like me saying to you that it is your fault you had a miscarriage and you did not act in a Catholic manner by letting that baby die. Perposterous, right? You did nothing to cause this miscarriage, just like I did nothing to cause my ectopic. Just like you were sad about the death of that baby, so was I, however, it was not even an option to do anything else. The baby would not have lived and neither would I. I am saddened that your Catholism (or lack of human understanding) has even progressed this far. I am saddened that a “mother” doesn’t understand this preplexity.

  • Gina … what I am disgusted by is the tone of your reply to this post. She is obviously struggling to come to terms with what happened, just as you did (and possibly still are). You more than anyone should understand that this situation requires patience and sensitivity, not the harsh words that you have used here.

    That said, I disagree with your position that the fact that the child will die soon means that it is ok to directly kill it. We don’t kill elderly people just because they are going to die soon. The direct taking of an innocent human life is wrong in every circumstance. Thus, if you take drugs to directly kill the child, or if you open the fallopian tube and suck the baby out, you commit an immoral act.

    The only justifiable recourse that I am aware of is one in which you remove the section of the tube that contains the baby. In this instance, the principle of double effect comes into play, as the author addressed above. Yes, this could mean an increase in the likelihood of a future ectopic pregnancy, but we know as Christians that sacrifice and suffering often accompanies doing the right thing.

    I realize that in the depths of sorrow, this can sound like a worthless platitude, but as Christians we also know that suffering need not result in hopelessness or despair, b/c we can unite our suffering to that of Christ on the Cross and experience the redemption that he won for us there.

    I hope this comment helps. Here’s an article on this topic (which I’m sure you’ve already found):

    Peace of Christ to you,