Sunday, January 2, 2011
Catholic Abortion Ethics
A Catholic hospital in Phoenix was recently disenfranchised by the Catholic church for authorizing an abortion in the case of a woman with a life-threatening pregnancy. Even assuming the mother and fetus would have died, had the pregnancy continued, Catholic ethics says the fetus couldn't be killed to save the mother. We must never intentionally kill an innocent person, even to bring about "the greater good."
It's worth thinking a bit about where the biggest problem with the Catholic position lies. There are two parts to the position: one is that the fetus is a person, no different from a baby or an adult. The other is that we must not kill person A to save person B. Rather, we should let both A and B die.
You get the Catholic position on abortion when you add together the two parts. The result is an intolerably perverse view, but wherein lies the problem? I think part one is the problem, not as much part two.
In fact, in real life situations where the alternatives are "kill A to save B" or "let both die" most of us will think "let both die" is at least sometimes preferable. First, imagine a mother is on a sinking lifeboat with her adopted baby. She knows the baby can't possibly survive--she has no food to give her (or whatever). If the mother throws the baby overboard, the lifeboat will stop sinking and she might survive. I think it's at least ethically coherent for the mother to think--no way, I can't do that.
Another scenario--a mother is holding a crying baby as she hides from the Nazis. She knows that if she is discovered, there will be no hope for either of them. So either she smothers the baby to save herself, or she lets them both be discovered and killed. I can certainly see it as at least coherent if she decides she will not kill her child.
Now, in both these cases, it's the mother who sacrifices herself to avoid killing her child. You might think--that's one thing, but a third party would have a very clear duty to kill the child to save the mother, especially if that's what the mother wanted. Suppose in the second scenario the mother can't bring herself to smother the child, and she asks a bystander to do it--someone whose life is not at risk (for some reason). Now we have a situation a lot like the one a doctor is in, when asked to provide an abortion for a potentially terminal mother.
I don't find it utterly beyond the pale if the bystander says "No, I cannot kill that innocent child. Better to let the two die, than for me to kill one to save the other." This is probably not the right view, all things considered, but it's not just a crazy, mind-addled view. You could have that view based on sheer moral reflection, and without any brain-washing by crazy clerics.
So I don't think part two is what makes the Catholic position on abortion so super-crazy. The problem is really part one. The fetus is not in fact a baby, but only a baby-to-be. To my mind, that means a certain level of care and reflection should precede terminating a pregnancy, but the situation is actually nothing like the three scenarios above. A Catholic mother (or any other) who let herself die rather than abort a fetus really would be delusional, I'm afraid, and a third party at a Catholic hospital even more so.
But you could at least say this for them--if there really were a full grown baby in the picture, refusing to kill it to save the mother would be an ethically comprehensible stance--not sheer irrational poppycock.