Friday, 4 June 2010

Abortion, Tradition and Compassion

The following article written by me appeared in today's Tablet, which carried three pieces on the controversy surrounding the excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride for her part in the decision to abort an eleven week foetus to save a mother's life:

The excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride has embroiled the Catholic Church in yet another scandal, at least in the American media. Sister Margaret, a senior administrator in St. Joseph’s Hospital, Phoenix, Arizona, was on a committee that agreed to the termination of an eleven week pregnancy to save the life of the mother. The bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmsted, announced that Sister 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 Sister Margaret but all those involved in the decision were automatically excommunicated.

Some would argue that these teachings are the necessary rigours of a Church which 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 Sister 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 which 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. Moreover, 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. It is morally nonsensical to attribute personhood to the contents of the womb in such situations and, as some Catholic ethicists point out, the logical corollary of this position is that a woman should baptise every menstrual period – just in case.

As a result of abandoning the distinction between early and late abortion, 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 which speaks out against the commodification of human life, and this must include a concern for abortion. Britain’s abortion rates remain unacceptably high – even 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% of them in the world’s poorest countries. An estimated 60,000 of these are abortion-related deaths. This suggests that outlawing abortion, far from saving lives, drives desperate women to risk their own lives rather than continuing 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 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 which 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, it has to be willingly accepted, and to insist that the life of a young mother of four existing children should be sacrificed to preserve an eleven 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 Sister Margaret and her colleagues.


  1. Great article.

  2. I found this very helpful.

  3. I found that the argument about imposed martyrdom resonated strongly and hauntingly with previous gynocides... (no spelling error in this word -- it's a Daly-ism).
    Very helpful indeed. We have a Cardinal (Mgr Ouellette) here in Quebec, Canada, who recently issued extremely fundamentalist statements about abortion; I will post your article on the Facebook page devoted to his public declaration (in French only).

  4. They're not fundamentalist statements, they're just Catholic.

  5. "The idea of ensoulment serves as a reminder..."

    This doesn't make sense to me. Do "we" ( that is Catholics) believe in the medieval idea of ensoulment?
    You'll be better aquainted with this than me no doubt but I had thought that the concept of ensoulment at quickening was a theological theory, now outdated because we know better about how life develops in utero. It was once thought that life began when the baby quickened, was felt to move. We know better now.
    Why would you be appealing to an outdated idea to support your view on abortion?

    "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"

    This is no more than unscientific, irrational, philosophical babble. Having a good way with words is not the same thing as actually making rational sense. The coming into being of a human person has absolutely nothing to do with the developing consciousness of the mother.
    I don't even need to explain why, because it ought to be perfectly obvious to anyone that a baby born to a mother who is mentally incapacitated is nonetheless still a human person.
    Your statement is simply untrue and an unnecessary muddying of the waters.

    If you are going to assert that the coming into being of a human person is a "gradual" process you ought to be able to support that with science and say at what point a fetus can be said to be a human person.
    You can't, because it is an irrational and unscientific statement.
    Rather than turning cartwheels of illogicality in order to justify this abortion, why can't you simply be honest and acknowledge that abortion kills a human life but that you believe that the circumstances justify that?
    I could respect that much more than this woolly wordiness about the understanding of personhood being fundamentally relational because we bear the image of the triune God.
    But maybe that's because I am a midwife and not a philosopher.

  6. Saint Gianna Molla Ora Pro Nobis!
    Mary [a Catholic]

  7. Modern embryology has found that even at the two cell stage the evidence points to one cell having the potential for producing the placenta, amniotic fluid and the umbilical cord, the other cell will become the embryo and foetus. There is a closed differentiating system right from the start - a continuum between conception and the baby .

    So please tell us, Professor the point at which there is a right to life.

    The argument of gradual ensoulment is no more than a moral comfort blanket which obviously attracts you. No comfort at the end though.

    The argument of the need to reduce deaths through back street abortions and the concern about maternal mortality is used to great effect by the international abortion industry which is very well funded by Western Governments and provides great careers and lifestyles for abortion doctors and abortion executives. For example, the Marie Stopes International top salary is over £200K, far more than the Prime Minister.

    The same argument was used by the proponents for the 1967 act ("No more back street abortions") Yet published government statistics show that mortality rates of women that had been pregnant (which must include by definition back street abortions) were declining well before the 1967 Act.

    Ann Farmer in her book "By their fruits" which draws meticulously from the relevant sources, including the archives of the Abortion Law Reform Association, argues that the 1967 act, while ostensibly to reduce back street abortions, was orchestrated by a liberal Home Secretary as a means of reducing poverty.

    With regard to maternal deaths, studies in Ireland where abortion is illegal are perhaps significant. In 1982, The National Maternity Hospital in Dublin investigated in detail the 21 deaths which occurred among the 74,317 pregnant women whom they looked after in the years 1970-1979. They found that there was not a single case where an abortion would have saved the mother's life.

    The argument should be more investment in the third world for better maternity services. But I guess its cheaper to abort than to invest in maternity services.

    Another thing. You say that abortion rates are going down in the UK. No, that is a half truth. They went down marginally last year after rising at about 2.5% per annum since 1997. (H/T to Tony Blair and New Labour). It's one of the few industries in the UK that makes a steady growth. Abortions may go down in the future if more people take the morning after pill which of course is abortifacient. Presumably that's why Marie Stopes International has decided to advertise on television to protect its business.

  8. This is an excellent article! Rarely do you find any writing on this topic that shows the author tobe both intelligent and Catholic. Well done.


Comments and contributions are welcome so long as they respect the rules of courtesy and respect, which is not to inhibit robust disagreement.