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.


Brett Hetherington said...

I like your use of the word "disenfranchise" which suggets that the Catholic church operates along business lines. History shows this to be true.

I agree that the churches position that any fetus is a de-facto baby is wrong and that a fetus is more accurately defined as a baby-to- be. The Catholic position has major ethical problems with it and that is why the morning-after pill is not murder either, and even in (mainly, nominally Catholic) Spain where I live a female Socialist party government stated that she had used this pill before.

At my blog "Standing in a Spanish Doorway"[http://bretthetherington.blogspot.com/] I referred to comments yesterday by the Catholic bishop of Cordoba here who gave a kind of new year warning:

"He believes that UNESCO has a program to make half the population homosexual and says that this United Nations organization is bent on “implanting an ideology” that already supports this theory in schools.

He then goes on to warn that sexuality is not “a game of pleasure “and on the subject of abortion states that “Spain walks proud of her progress towards her own destruction” due to a declining birthrate.

faust said...

"one is that the fetus is a person, no different from a baby or an adult."

Well here is the problem. The fetus is quite obviously not "a person" but then a baby is quite obviously not "a person" either. So granting that a fetus is not a baby (though of course this depends on where in the developemental cycle the fetus happens to be, the fetus becomes more and more of a baby as time goes on) it doesn't seem to matter much becuase it's unclear where babies get their intrinsic worth from.

The argument as you present it here uses a fairly typical slight of hand.

1. Establish that fetuses are not persons.
2. Then substitute the term "baby" for "person"
3. Unsoundly proceed as though baby were persons (because 2. is false).

Babies are are clearly not persons, they are in fact "persons-to-be" in a manner quite similar to the way in which fetuses are "babies-to-be."

The "pro fetus" position is simply one that takes seriously the question of potentiality, it regards both fetuses and babies as equally "persons to be" and accords them equivalent rights on that basis.

Now of course there are wierd pradoxes that result from taking potentiality seriously (or so some say, I'm not sure about these arguments), but in my opinion no one who is "pro baby" has ever been able to give me a satifactory argument as to where the "intrinsic" worth of babies comes from outside of the fact that they are "persons to be."

CAA said...

Why wouldn't sentience be a good enough reason not to kill babies and a good reason to differentiate between babies and fetuses (prior to 28 weeks or whenever it is that the neurological machinery has developed to the point that pain might be possible)? Sentience means that the baby has interests and that coupled with potential or future personhood seems like it would explain the difference between the fetus and the baby.

What's even weirder about this case is that the procedure was a placentectomy which was medically justified by the cardio-pulmonary effects of the hormones produced by the placenta. The church argues however that the fetus/placenta wouldn't kill the woman but her pre-existing condition would.

It's about as close to Thomson's violinst scenario as possible, if you add in the stipulation that being hooked up to the machine will almost certainly kill you (you have a preexisting condition aggravated by the kidney functions of the violinist).

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, My use of the words "baby" and "person" was sloppy--I didn't mean much by it. I was just trying to say: let's suppose the fetus really is a no different from a baby. Now let's think about analogous situations involving babies. The Catholic position isn't totally incomprehensible (which isn't to say it's right).

Brett, Making half the population homosexual..hmm! I wonder how came up with that! The issue of shrinking population is puzzling. Environmentally that's good, but it creates very thorny problems.

CAA, Yes, I was thinking about Thomson's violinist too, but I kind of prefer my scenarios, because they are more realistic, and make it vivid how killing might seem like an appalling possibility, even if the alternative is that both mother and baby die. The fact that you are kidnapped in that violinist scenario adds a distracting element too.

Aeolus said...

I agree that refusing to kill a child to save the mother is at least ethically comprehensible. But I find unpersuasive the idea that the moment of birth for a human organism marks a neat line between having negligible moral standing and having full moral standing. So it seems that the "not sheer irrational poppycock" judgement can apply to the late stages of pregnancy too.

Aeolus said...

This works in the other direction too, so that Peter Singer's view on infanticide is not sheer irrational poppycock either.

naturallyprolife said...

Actually, this post mischaracterizes the Catholic position on "abortion to save the mother's life."

The Catholic Church does not teach that we should "let both A and B die" rather than "killing person A to save person B."

Rather, the teaching is that it is morally permissible under certain circumstances to treat directly the cause of the mother's medical condition, even if those efforts unintentionally and indirectly cost the baby's life. But one life must never be directly traded for another.

For a much more detailed explanation of this distinction, please see "The Distinction Between Direct Abortion and Legitimate Medical Procedures" on the U.S. Catholic Bishops' website: www.usccb.org/doctrine/direct-abortion-statement2010-06-23.pdf

Jean Kazez said...


I don't see the mischaracterization. I didn't say the idea was that we should ALWAYS let both A and B die, I said the idea was that we should let A and B die RATHER THAN killing A to save B. That is to say, when you could only save B by killing A, you must let both die. By "killing A" I mean directly and intentionally killing A--as is the case in all my scenarios.

Jean Kazez said...

Aeolus, Yes, that's fair. Maybe I was too black and white. In the last month of pregnancy, there really is a "baby" in the picture, and the refusal to kill it is at least "comprehensible". And then you're also right to discuss what all is entailed by simply being a baby. I can teach both Catholic ethics about about abortion and Peter Singer on infanticide without feeling as if I've entered the twilight zone....so to speak.

CAA said...

Your scenarios are very helpful and improve on intrusive disanalogies between the two cases in JJT. But, if I understand correctly, however, there is a more fundamental difference: You are arguing that the problem is the premise asserting the fetus' personhood; JJT would argue that even if we grant the personhood the argument fails.

For this case (abortion to save the life of the pregnant woman), if we change JJT's analogy so that the beneficiary is a family member, or even a child, rather than a stranger, and rather than kidnapping, you've agreed to undergo this in the hope of saving their life, then, if after agreeing to be hooked up, you learn that you will die because of a pre-existing condition aggravated and made fatal by some other body using your kidneys, it would seem perverse for a third party--or even the second party!--to blame you for being removed from the machine. Although I could imagine someone being unwilling to be disconnected (like your cases' mothers), but it would seem almost perverse to remain connected to the machine. This may have to do letting die/killing differences between your scenarios and JJT's.

Even though it might not seem perverse for the mother in the lifeboat to not kill her baby, how would we evaluate the mother who chose to die of dehydration while providing all of the drinking water to the baby and refusing to drink any herself? The outcome will be her death and ultimately the death of the baby, if the baby can no longer provide her/himself with water after the mother's death.

Jean Kazez said...

I think to get a really close analogy to abortion, you have to have a situation where a mother directly kills her child--by smothering her, throwing her overboard, shooting her, or whatever. Withdrawing water (in the boat) isn't an act in the same exact category. Disconnecting from the child (in your modified JTT analogy) is closer to smothering, etc., but still a shade different.

Here's another analogy, from the Zombie movie 28 days (or was it 24?!). Your child gets infected with the zombie virus, which will kill her in a matter of days. She comes at you in a frenzy and tries to infect you. Will you shoot her? It's not that odd if you'd rather that you both die than kill her to save yourself.

I think assuming the fetus is a real baby at least has the effect of making it morally permissible and non-perverse for a mother to not abort, and let both fetus and herself die. So the Catholic position--provided that you assume a fetus is just like a baby--is not quite as crazy as sometimes thought.

I don't see why Thomson couldn't actually agree with what I'm saying. Her position is that abortion is permissible; all I'm saying is that failing to abort is permissible too, even when otherwise both mother and fetus will die (and understandable too--it's something we ought to be able to relate to)....IF you think of the fetus as just like a baby.

naturallyprolife said...

Jean: I didn't say that you said we should ALWAYS let both A and B die. I quoted you accurately, including your "rather than" qualification.

Are you able to cite a source that confirms that the Catholic position on this issue is what you say it is? ("We must not kill person A to save person B. Rather, we should let both A and B die.")

The source I cited explains what the Catholic position actually is. Am I to assume that you didn't read it?

Everyone on this comment thread is arguing from a false premise.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, I did read it. And thank you for providing the link. Why don't you tell me what you think the difference is between how I'm characterizing the Catholic position, and what it really is?

The assumption is that situation is one in which A and B will both die if you do nothing and the only way to save either is to kill A (directly and intentionally) to save B. The Catholic position is that you may not kill A to save B, but rather must let them both die.

What's wrong with that characterization?

CAA said...

Yes, your account and JJT's are consistent--the difference being whether there is the burden of also arguing that fetuses are not persons.

I don't know enough (or really anything) about placentectomies, but it doesn't seems obvious to me that the best analogy is one of direct killing. It may be that the language used to describe the procedure is misleading (is this just an abortion procedure with a different goal?), but if we imagine a procedure that chemically induces the removal of the placenta (miscarriage), it seems to me that the analogue is to removal of life support or nutrition rather than to smothering. If we imagine vacuum aspiration as the procedure used to remove the placenta, I can see the reasons for the analogy being smothering rather than removal of life support. In the first case the action does x which has consequence y, while in the second, the action does x and y simultaneously.

Jean Kazez said...

I admit I just ignored the whole business about "plancentectomy" and talked about straightforward abortion. What a weird procedure. I couldn't wrap my mind around it, so just completely ignored it! I suppose if you could convince yourself that a placentectomy wasn't really a killing, choosing it is a bit more like not giving the baby in the boat any of the fresh water, which one can imagine more easily than throwing the baby overboard. So focusing on placentectomy rather than straigtforward abortion does somewhat undermine my attempt to make the Catholic view "ethically comprehensible" (on the assumption that a fetus is just like a baby).

Ophelia Benson said...

I think assuming the fetus is a real baby at least has the effect of making it morally permissible and non-perverse for a mother to not abort, and let both fetus and herself die. So the Catholic position--provided that you assume a fetus is just like a baby--is not quite as crazy as sometimes thought.

But the argument with the bishop and the church isn't about the mother's decision, it's about the bishop and the church over-ruling the mother's decision. The mother agreed to the procedure. She had rejected it earlier, but when her condition got worse, she accepted it. That's a completely different matter. Of course it's understandable and not crazy for a parent to refuse to save herself by killing her baby. But the analogy would be to an outsider forcing the mother to die along with her baby. (A further complication: the mother could have made that decision for the sake of the four children on dry land. The Phoenix mother has four children.)

Jean Kazez said...

The scenario most closely analogous to abortion is the second one I discussed, with the variant involving the bystander. The mother asks the bystander to smother the baby, because she can't bring herself to do it. I only said I didn't think it was beyond the pale for the bystander to say no, it's impermissible. You could have that view on a secular basis, and without religious instruction. It's not ethically ethically incomprehensible.

But then again, the fetus isn't a baby. That was the bottom line, but I thought it was interesting to ask "what if it was?"

Yes, there are extra elements in the real world case that make it especially disturbing--the 4 children who would have been left without a mother.