June 24, 2010 by D Stack
It’s a story that probably reached the peak of its headline gathering potential about a month or so ago. But I took a little blogging sabbatical what with life issues accumulating and needing a break from the general nastiness of the state of political debate. So what better topic to break back in than abortion?
The basics of the story are that of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona excommunicating a Catholic nun, Sister Margaret McBride, for authorizing an abortion at the St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, where she had been an administrator. Or rather, to echo the official stated view of the Roman Catholic Church, he indicated she had automatically excommunicated herself by her actions in helping to procure an abortion.
Now getting details of this case are a little tricky. And that makes careful consideration tricky. However, one advantage of the passage of time is more details have become known. The best summary of it that I have found can be found at this NPR story. Here are the facts as I understand them:
- The woman was in the 11th week of her pregnancy.
- She was suffering from severe hypertension as a result of complications from her pregnancy and had already suffered partial heart failure.
- Doctors agreed the risk of the death of the woman if she attempted to continue the pregnancy was near-certain (as an engineer, I understand any doctor’s unwillingness to say 100%).
- The woman was too ill to be moved to another hospital
Some additional research indicates that no fetus has survived if delivered prior to mid-way through the 22nd week. So there were still 11 more weeks to go, 11 weeks in which doctors were certain she would die if she continued the pregnancy.
Back when I was in college, some time after the invention of the wheel but before that of the world wide web, I remember late night debates we’d have. Solving the world’s problems, going through various ethical debates. Often when someone brought up a moral absolute someone else would interject “but what…” to try to see just how absolute a belief really was. This would often lead to some of the most hypothetical scenarios imaginable, scenarios that no one really believed would occur in the real world.
Oklahoma pastor Byron Williams discussed this in an editorial. He begins it by discussing the difference between facing a hypothetical moral question vs. a real one:
The classes I enjoyed most during seminary were ethics courses. We would debate particular questions about morality addressing issues of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice.
Rarely was a definitive conclusion reached; no one had sole possession of the truth; and the philosophical question was always hypothetical.
This latter point was particularly noteworthy because it allowed us the luxury of debating our sense of morality without having to actually make a difficult decision.
Sister of Mercy Margaret McBride, a Catholic nun and administrator at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, was not so fortunate.
Unlike seminary, she was held accountable for her moral position.
I think Williams puts it well. This was no theoretical exercise. Sister McBride was faced with a baby she couldn’t save and a woman who she could save by aborting the pregnancy. Despite being what most would consider one of those horrific cafeteria Catholics I tend to agree with the idea that an abortion is the taking of a human life.
Where there is debate, even among Catholics, is whether the principle of double effect applies. Bsaically the idea behind that is it is morally permissible to perform some good act which will have a bad “side-effect” for lack of a better term. For example, under this principle it is acceptable to treat a pregnant woman for cancer even if that treatment is 100% likely to kill the fetus. Or it is permissible to make and use a vaccine which will save millions of lives though it will have a fatal adverse reaction with perhaps hundreds of people.
The question is how could this principle apply in this case? The argument against it is the abortion is specifically targeting the fetus – its death is not a by-product but the actual goal. In other words, one cannot do evil to do good.
I don’t agree though that in this is an absolute case an evil act is being committed. We cannot save the fetus. That baby will never be born. We can save the mother. What is the intent? The intent is to save the mother. The act is the only act within our power to save the mother. Its effect is the death of the fetus. What if we do nothing? The mother dies. The fetus dies.
Is it a painful choice? I think so. But I also think at this point it is one that is absolutely appropriate. What value is the mother’s life? I know the fetus is innocent. But is not the mother innocent as well? Does she not have a right to live? Indeed a right to self-defense against an unwilling instrument of her death? Especially given there is absolutely nothing to be done to save the baby’s life. This is not either-or. This is one or neither.
There is considerable debate among Catholic ethicists – the National Catholic Reporter has an interesting analysis of this. One interesting quote I found from theologian Pat McCormick of Gonzaga University puts it better than I can:
“What, then, are we to do in the case where the innocent life of a mother is gravely threatened by her own pregnancy, and where there is no way to save the life of the unborn child if the mother dies, and no way to save the life of the mother without terminating the pregnancy? The unborn child is clearly innocent of any moral wrongdoing, but so is the mother — and her life is gravely threatened by an unprovoked attack. Does she have no duty or right to defend her life in this horribly tragic case? Do doctors have no obligation to save the one life they can save?
“There is no other case,” wrote McCormick in e-mail answers to questions, “in which official church teaching condemns killing in self-defense when the danger is life-threatening and unprovoked, and when there is no other way to address this danger.” In the case of ectopic pregnancy or uterine cancer, noted McCormick, an “indirect” abortion would have been permitted, “but the unborn child would have been just as assuredly killed in the process” as if it were a direct abortion.