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The Catholic Church on life-saving abortion: It's okay when we can pretend the fetus isn't there.

Written by Kathleen Reeves for RHRealityCheck.org - News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

In the wake of the "automatic excommunication" of Sister Margaret McBride, a nun who was part of a committee that granted an abortion to a woman whose pregnancy threatened her life, theologians are splitting hairs over excommunication, intention, and conscience. In order to clear things up, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has released a statement articulating the difference between "direct" and "indirect" abortion.

Direct abortion is a "procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy," including when the mother’s life is in danger.

Of course, there’s another effect, which is that the mother’s life is saved. Perhaps it’s not immediate enough?

Indirect abortion happens as follows:

"Operations, treatments and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman" that "cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable" and may "result in the death of the unborn child."

The second is okay by the Church; the first, no.

Are you confused? If so, it’s because there is NO SUBSTANTIVE DIFFERENCE between these two scenarios. In order for a woman to live, her pregnancy must end.

The USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine provides these helpful examples:

The first involves a pregnant woman who is experiencing problems with one or more of her organs, apparently because of the added burden of pregnancy. In this case, the doctor recommends an abortion to protect the woman's health.

In the second example, a pregnant woman develops cancer in her uterus. In this case, the doctor recommends surgery to remove the cancerous uterus as the only way to prevent the cancer from spreading. Removing the uterus also will result in the death of the unborn child.

The only difference I see in these cases is that in case two, the fetus is hidden away in the uterus, so the doctors removing it can pretend it’s not there.

And thus it is that a rich theological tradition is reduced to garbage. And unfortunately, this reasoning, reminiscent of "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?," is medical policy.

The USCCB has not had a good year. But, as Nicholas Kristof pointed out, at least it didn’t have to excommunicate any child molesters.

Originally posted to RH Reality Check on Fri Jun 25, 2010 at 07:55 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Looks Like a Pretty Huge Step Forward For Them, (4+ / 0-)

    to me. First I've seen any crack whatsoever from the party line of no-harming-fetus-no-how-no-way.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Fri Jun 25, 2010 at 08:04:21 AM PDT

    •  No, they've always had what's called "the rule (5+ / 0-)

      of double effect," when a medical treatment (or any choice) has more than one consequence. Another example is that they oppose euthanasia but allow morphine for pain control even in doses that may supress breathing.

      •  Yeah, which has been hotly debated (3+ / 0-)

        among theologians for years.

        The problem is this: does the moral nature of the circumstances change simply because they have backed you into a corner with no good options?

        Or, is something evil not so evil if it was an unavoidable consequence of doing something good, even if you didn't want the evil thing to happen, even though you knew it would happen and that it was evil?

        To the second question, the Church would say, no it's still evil, but you don't suffer the consequences of doing that evil (i.e., you're not sinful), because your intent was to do good and the evil thing was unavoidable to do good. Somehow, that makes the evil inconsequential. Maybe by God's grace? I don't know--I spent 4 years studying at a seminary and no one explained this to me. Logically, if something is "inherently" evil then it's always consequentially evil. There's a consequence for that evil happening, period. But the Church kinda doesn't see it that way, although they won't admit that directly.

        Moral dilemmas are never pretty, and moral theology is even worse. The Catholic Church has tried to avoid what it sees as moral relativism, only to invent their own. But they won't admit it's moral relativism. No, that's what those sinner, pagan liberals do. Not us!

        It's just one of the several reason why the Church hierarchy and I aren't on speaking terms.

        -8.50, -7.64 Autism Speaks does not speak for me. I can speak for myself. I am a person, not a disease. I want to be respected, not "cured."

        by croyal on Fri Jun 25, 2010 at 08:36:49 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  But actions aren't good or evil in themselves (0+ / 0-)

          The problem is this: does the moral nature of the circumstances change simply because they have backed you into a corner with no good options?

          Or, is something evil not so evil if it was an unavoidable consequence of doing something good, even if you didn't want the evil thing to happen, even though you knew it would happen and that it was evil?

          The second half sounds to me like it assumes that an ACTION can be good or evil in itself. But that's absurd.

          Killing someone is often an evil act. But if I am defending someone's life, or I am a soldier carrying out orders, it may be a good act. The action is not good or evil in itself. And if an animal kills someone, the act is entirely morally neutral, as a consequence of assuming that animals do not make moral choices.

          Similarly, even if abortion is an evil act if carried out for some reasons, that doesn't require that it be considered an evil act if carried out for other reasons.

          Is the above moral relativism? I don't think so -- it's just defining morality in terms of human decision making and overall consequences, rather than in individual isolated (and context-free) actions. Trying to avoid paying attention to context is the key fault of Biblical literalists -- I didn't realize that it was a fault of Catholic moral theology as well.

  •  Interesting how self defense (4+ / 0-)

    is excusable in the Catholic Church except in cases where the person defending herself is a woman and the being threatening her life is a fetus.

    I'm only hard headed when you take me for granite

    by Im a frayed knot on Fri Jun 25, 2010 at 08:06:24 AM PDT

  •  Maybe so, Goose (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    corvo, gustynpip, Im a frayed knot

    To me, it sounds like more like debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I.e. borderline intellectually bankrupt.

    "Ridicule may lawfully be employed where reason has no hope of success." -7.75/-6.05

    by QuestionAuthority on Fri Jun 25, 2010 at 08:06:53 AM PDT

  •  In other good Holy-Mother-Church-related news: (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    myboo, luckylizard, Im a frayed knot
    1. The British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists finds that fetuses cannot feel pain before the age of 24 weeks.
    1. Belgian police raid various central offices of the Roman Catholic Church in their country, suspecting cover-ups in an exploding sex-abuse scandal.
    •  Thank you for reminding me (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      corvo, Cassandra Waites, hardhatmama

      Another time when self defense is not acceptable is when the attacker is a priest and the victim is a child.

      I'm only hard headed when you take me for granite

      by Im a frayed knot on Fri Jun 25, 2010 at 08:10:52 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Aww, be fair now! (3+ / 0-)

        If you survive decades' worth of emotional scars, aggravated by Holy Mother Church's strenuous denials and accusations that you're out to make money off of a fraudulent accusation, the Holy Father might shed a well-publicized tear for you.

        •  Here is where I fail to connect (4+ / 0-)

          If it is not yet viable and not yet born it deserves total protection to the point of killing the mother.  If it is born but not yet tithing (out on its own and making money), it deserves no protection.  If it is female, it deserves restriction, derision and abuse (I recall when the church was telling me that if a husband is abusive, the wife needs to be more submissive, pray for him, etc).  If it is male and unemployed it can line up in a soup line.  If it committed a crime it really shouldn't be put to death by the state, but that is forgivable.  If it is old and on tubes, it must suffer until doctors can no longer figure out how to keep that carbon complex ticking.  All this is in the name of morality, compassion and humanity.  It is not only inconsistent, but it seems to select the moral answer to be the cruelest side of each question.

          I'm only hard headed when you take me for granite

          by Im a frayed knot on Fri Jun 25, 2010 at 08:19:12 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  maximum exertion of power, (2+ / 0-)

            maximum propagation of real and potential communicants.

            That's what it's all about.

          •  The moderately revised rule seems from the (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Flaming Liberal for Jesus

            examples, not very clear ones. It seems that if the treatment for the mother's dangerous condition itself kills the child and cannot be safely postponed until a Caesarean becomes a viable option, that is an indirect abortion and OK. The risk to the mother, as in the cancer example, need not apparently itself be fatal before the projected end of the pregnancy, because of the inclusion of the risk being the cancer spreading, not its killing the mother. But if an abortion is done, as an abortion, not. So that you can kill the infant with chemo, or surgery for the mother's condition, if the treatment of the mother's condition does the killing, but not if an abortion is done.

            If the other one had few grey areas, this one will have a lot of them. But the issue is whether the treatment for the mother's condition does it or whether a separate decision for abortion is made and the abortion does it. And whether the treatment of the mother can or cannot be postponed. Which means that mother's conditions can be treated without respect to consequences of that treatment for the fetus if it cannot be postponed until the fetus is viable, that is, deliverable by Caesarian Section. One supposes without knowing that once the fetus is demonstrably dead from the treatment of the mother's condition, the Church will have no further interest in it and the deceased fetus can be removed, but that is not clear.

            At least, in this, there is a clearish line that the long term health and survival of the mother is now a material factor. That's some progress and is already wider than Hyde.

  •  The only clarity I am seeing (3+ / 0-)

    is that women are, and always have been, vessels.

    My dogs think triciawyse is smart and pretty. They think I'm a strange, frumpy woman wth limitless snacks.

    by martydd on Fri Jun 25, 2010 at 08:10:25 AM PDT

  •  You must not be Catholic (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    OHdog, Im a frayed knot

    Allow someone who studied theology at a Catholic seminary for 4 years help out here:

    The only difference I see in these cases is that in case two, the fetus is hidden away in the uterus, so the doctors removing it can pretend it’s not there.

    The difference is simply intent. If you intend to kill the fetus, it's a grave sin. If you don't, but your intervening action leads to the fetus' death, it's not.

    Either way, the fetus isn't very meaningful. Its only meaning hinges on your intentions toward it, and your intentions define the moral "value" of the fetus' life. If the fetus dies and you intended it, then then it's a symptom of your sin. If you didn't intend it but had to treat another condition that led to that death, then it's a symptom of the natural processes of disease and thus not inherently sinful. Basically it's assumed God "allowed" that death.

    Yeah, I know. It's moral relativism and a very convoluted rationalization. So, yes, it's utter, utter bullshit.

    The Catholic Church has backed itself into a moral/logical corner with its defense of the fetus as a person and so we can't terminate a pregnancy for any reason. But the truth is, morally and logically, that's indefensible. So they make up nonsense like this that undermines that claim that the fetus is always person, because according this this directive, it's only a person if you are being a bad, bad person by wanting to end the pregnancy.

    -8.50, -7.64 Autism Speaks does not speak for me. I can speak for myself. I am a person, not a disease. I want to be respected, not "cured."

    by croyal on Fri Jun 25, 2010 at 08:19:22 AM PDT

    •  No communion if (4+ / 0-)

      you support a woman's right to choose.  But you can take communion if you support capital punishment.  Go figure.

      I'm only hard headed when you take me for granite

      by Im a frayed knot on Fri Jun 25, 2010 at 08:20:51 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  No, this misunderstands intent. Intent simply (2+ / 0-)

      means knowing and understanding the consequences of your actions and taking those actions anyway.  Regardless of the reason for taking the fetus, the taker knows the result will be the death of the fetus.  If I intend to shoot a deer, and I know your head is in the way, but I shoot the deer anyway, knowing the bullet will go through your head first, I still intended your death.  

      "If you trust you are not critical; if you are critical you do not trust" by our own Dauphin

      by gustynpip on Fri Jun 25, 2010 at 08:30:33 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Here, you can kill the fetus in utero to (0+ / 0-)

        accomplish a different purpose that cannot be avoided, but not kill the fetus where the direct purpose is to kill the fetus rather than a side effect of that different purpose.

        •  Roll all those words around in different (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Silverbird
          formations as much as you want to try and justify the nonsensical approach of the Church.  Doesn't affect reality one iota.

          "If you trust you are not critical; if you are critical you do not trust" by our own Dauphin

          by gustynpip on Fri Jun 25, 2010 at 10:27:40 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  It's a move off their prior position which will (0+ / 0-)

            save some lives especially in communities where Catholic Hospitals are the best or sometimes only resource. No, it doesn't make a one hundred eighty degree turn, but it is a step in the right direction which will save some lives at least. And is out of character for the USCCB, which means something effectively forced them to rethink it a bit. THAT is interesting.

        •  That argument doesn't distinguish the cases (0+ / 0-)

          Removing the uterus to remove a tumor, which removes the fetus as a "side effect", is still choosing an action (removing a risk to the mother's life) that kills the fetus.

          Performing an abortion in order to prevent the mother from dying due to overstressed organs is also choosing an action (removing a risk to the mother's life) that kills the fetus.

          In both cases, we don't know for sure if the mother would have died without the action that killed the fetus. We just know that the best medical judgment was that a particular action was required to save the life of the mother, which would result in the death of the fetus.

          If that's evil, then so is triage (sorting out who to treat and who to not treat, which may result in their death, when there are limited resources). But if triage is an unpleasant but unavoidable fact of life in emergencies, then so is a medical abortion to save the mothers' life.

  •  I see the difference myself, but (0+ / 0-)

    I support the liberty to have either procedure if the woman wants it.

    2.5 trillion dollars have been "borrowed" since the [SS] system was "reformed" in the 80s and they simply don't want to pay it back. - dKos Blogger -

    by Silverbird on Fri Jun 25, 2010 at 11:17:32 AM PDT

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