In the balance
Morality of abortion – 2Tina Beattie
- 5 June 2010
Traditional teaching by the Church bans abortion, even when the mother might die if she continues with the pregnancy. But many theologians are now questioning whether, when it comes to hard cases, they should stick to moral absolutes or return to an even older teaching about the start of life
Sr Margaret McBride’s excommunication has embroiled the Catholic Church in yet another scandal, at least in the American media. Sr Margaret, a senior administrator in St Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, Phoenix, Arizona, was on a committee that agreed to the termination of an 11-week pregnancy to save the life of the mother.
The Bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmsted, subsequently announced that Sr Margaret was automatically excommunicated for agreeing to an abortion. His communications office subsequently explained that “the mother’s life cannot be preferred over the child’s”, and added that not only Sr Margaret but all those involved in the decision were automatically excommunicated.
Some would argue that these teachings are the necessary rigours of a Church that must oppose any deliberate ending of innocent human life. The ethical reasoning behind this is that one may not do evil that good might result, and it has its roots in the belief that the moral value of an action lies in its intention. That is why the Church’s teaching also supports the doctrine of double effect.
An action with a good intention might have an unintended but unavoidable negative side effect, in which case it might be morally justified. So, a procedure could be performed with the intention of saving a mother’s life which indirectly caused the death of the foetus (for example, by removing the cancerous womb of a pregnant woman), but the direct, intentional killing of the foetus can never be condoned, even to save the mother’s life.
This kind of argument may appeal to those who value moral absolutes over ambiguity, but many of us regard dilemmas such as the one confronting Sr Margaret and her colleagues as being too complex for formulaic judgements. The intention in this case was not to kill the child but to save the mother, and some may regard the distinction between directly and indirectly destroying the foetus as of little ethical relevance in situations of such tragic complexity. Moreover, many of us are astounded that a hierarchy that has shown such incompetence and moral ambivalence in its handling of the sex-abuse crisis, and which has shown greater concern for its own members than for the lives of young people in its care, can act with such ruthless decisiveness with regard to abortion.
But there are grounds for reconsidering the Catholic Church’s present position on abortion by appealing to the wisdom of its own tradition, which is less rigid than the present hierarchy would have us believe. The claim that all abortion is tantamount to murder finds little support in pre-modern theology.
Until the late nineteenth century there was widespread debate as to the morality of early and late abortion, with a widespread consensus that early abortion was a less grave sin than late abortion. This was informed by the belief that “ensoulment” was not simultaneous with conception, but that the early foetus went through various stages of pre-human development before it acquired a soul and became fully human. While debates about the sinfulness of early abortion were sometimes concerned with the unborn child, they often focused more on the sexual morality of the pregnant woman.
The idea of ensoulment serves as a reminder that the coming into being of a human person is not an instantaneous event but a gradual process, not only in terms of the biological process of fertilisation, implantation and cellular division, but also in terms of the developing consciousness of the mother and her relationship to the child.
Given that in Christian theology the understanding of personhood is fundamentally relational because it bears the image of the Triune God, it is hard to see how an embryo can be deemed a person before even the mother enters into a rudimentary relationship with it. As many as one in four pregnancies may spontaneously abort during the first eight weeks of pregnancy, often without the woman knowing that she was pregnant. As some Catholic ethicists point out, the logical corollary of this position is that a woman should baptise every menstrual period – just in case.
Given that the distinction between early and late abortion has been abandoned, modern Catholicism has become the most absolutist of the world’s religions on this issue. Both Islam and Judaism teach that the life of a woman always takes precedence over that of the unborn child.
In less clear-cut situations, they adopt casuistic approaches in which principled opposition to abortion is weighed against particular circumstances, at least in the early stages of pregnancy. So, for example, a fatwa was issued which allowed Muslim victims of the Serbian rape camps to have early abortions. This casuistic method of moral reasoning has much in common with the pre-modern Catholic tradition.
It is right that the Church should be a voice of conscience that speaks out against the commodification of human life, and this must include a concern for abortion. Britain’s abortion rates remain unacceptably high – although there has been a downward trend in recent years – and it is hard not to conclude that abortion is sometimes used as a form of contraception. This does not, however, lend support to those who argue that contraception is responsible for high abortion rates.
Statistics show that, when women have ready access to contraception and abortion laws are liberal, as in northern and western Europe, abortion rates are lower than in the largely Catholic countries of Central and South America, despite the fact that abortion in such countries is often illegal and poses a significant risk to a woman’s life. If the Catholic hierarchy seeks to defend the dignity of all human life – including women’s lives – it would do well to pay more attention to what actually works and what does not work in terms of reducing the incidence of maternal mortality and abortion.
In this respect, it is regrettable that Pope Benedict XVI’s most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, refers repeatedly to issues of reproduction and abortion but it makes no mention at all of maternal mortality, despite the fact that nearly 350,000 women die every year of childbirth-related causes, 99 per cent of them in the world’s poorest countries. An estimated 60,000 of these are abortion-related deaths. This suggests desperate women will risk their own lives rather than continue with unwanted pregnancies.
These are complex issues and they do not lend themselves to easy answers. However, not least among the many challenges facing the Catholic hierarchy is the urgent need to respect the moral authority of women themselves in these areas.
It is to my mind unacceptable in today’s world that a religious hierarchy made up exclusively of celibate men should claim the right to make authoritative decisions regarding these most intimate areas of women’s lives. If it is to have any moral credibility in the modern world, the Magisterium must include women theologians and ethicists in the formulation of its teachings and doctrines.
To acknowledge that there are cases when early abortion is the lesser of two evils is not to be pro-abortion, any more than to acknowledge that sometimes war may be a necessary evil means that one is pro-war. There is a pro-life position that refuses all forms of violence, including abortion and war, and it finds near-unanimous support in the very early Christian tradition. If one really believes that the intentional taking of innocent life is never permitted, then surely one must be pacifist as well as anti-abortion, given that the methods of modern warfare mean that the vast majority of casualties of war are now civilians.
This pro-life position also entails a commitment to martyrdom if necessary – the martyrdom of a woman who accepts a pregnancy which poses a potentially deadly threat to her own life, or the martyrdom of a person who chooses to die rather than kill when confronted by an aggressor.
But martyrdom cannot be imposed, and to insist that the life of a young mother of three existing children should be sacrificed to preserve an 11-week foetus would strike many as a particularly brutal form of imposed martyrdom. There has to be greater wisdom and compassion in the ways in which the Catholic hierarchy responds to the kind of moral dilemmas faced by Sr Margaret and her colleagues.