Rape, Incest, the Life of the Mother, and the Abortion Argument: Part 2

In  Part 1 of this two-part discussion on the three big exceptions that are often listed by people who say they are opposed to abortion, we discussed the instances of rape and incest. In this second part, I would like to discuss the life of the mother being in danger and why being for abortion and being in favor of saving the mother’s life are not necessarily the same thing.

In its teaching about the legitimate defense of life, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing (emphasis added)…the act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor (this part is from a paragraph describing self-defense from another, grown individual; I am NOT implying that an unborn baby is an aggressor)… The one is intended, the other is not.” (CCC 2263). So, the difference here lies in whether ending the pregnancy is intentional or not. Another way to put it is to consider whether you are ending the pregnancy directly or indirectly. In bioethics, this is called, just as the Catechism says, the principle of double effect.

The principle of double effect applies when an intervention in medicine has two effects, one good and one bad. The intervention must meet four criteria (via Culture of Life Foundation):

  • The action itself must be good or at the very least indifferent. It must also be the only possible course of action to reach the good effect.
  • The primary effect must be the good one; the bad effect must be a consequence and secondary.
  • The good effect must be the only one desired; the bad effect can only be tolerated. The bad effect must not be sought as the end game, only permitted as a result.
  • The good must be proportionally greater or equal to the bad.

Keeping all of these things in mind, let’s look back at our situation. The first criteria is met because saving the life of the mother is good. The second part must be evaluated on a case to case basis: is the treatment or procedure being considered the ONLY way to save the mother’s life? For our purposes, let’s say that it is. So that part is met as well. The second criteria is met because the primary goal is saving the life of the mother and the potential death of the child in the process is a sad consequence. The third criteria is met because the only desired effect (hopefully) is that the mother’s life is saved and the likely loss of the child is something that will only be tolerated as a result. The fourth criteria is met because saving one life is proportional to the loss of another.

Now, notice that I said “potential” death and “likely” loss. It is not necessarily guaranteed. For it to be truly said that the loss of the child is only tolerated and an undesired consequence, every possible course of action following the treatment or procedure must be taken to try to save the life of the child as well as the mother. If the child is left to die because it is seen as impossible to save, the action becomes intentional and morally illicit. Even if it seems very likely the child will die regardless, it is important to realize that it is a human being and it deserves a chance. Everything is possible with God and miracles do happen. If the child does die, the medical staff will not be at fault as long as they did everything they could and the parents can be comforted by the fact that every possible thing was done to try to save their baby.

So, when it comes to the case of abortion to save the life of the mother, it’s all about the language we use. If we take a course of action for the right reason (saving the life of the mother), then that’s what should be desired. And the fact that the child may be lost in the process is tolerated, but not desired. And most of the time, when you hear the word abortion, you think of something that is desired (unless the mother was forced). But if it’s not desired, then we can’t really say that we’re FOR it or in favor of it, can we? So, when someone asks if we’re in favor of abortion to save the life of the mother, we should respond, “No. I am in favor of doing whatever it takes to save both lives, but I understand that unfortunately, in rare cases, the loss of the child is an undesired consequence.” And then you can educate them on the principle of double effect.

 

 

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