The Catholic Church and abortion

They are against it. They imagine they have moral reasons for this. Their method of moral reasoning is inferior to mine. My method of moral reasoning fits free people; theirs fits people following the rules of an oligarchy.

Catholic morality is deontological, following rules. Certain acts are considered sins, whatever the consequences: the end never justifies the means, they say. My morality is at least in part consequentialist: I look at the intended result.

Can a foetus be aborted to save the life of the mother, when if it is not aborted both will die? No, they say: Two natural deaths are a lesser evil than one murder. John Paul II wrote, The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end. It is in fact a grave act of disobedience to the moral law, and indeed to God himself, the author and guarantor of that law; it contradicts the fundamental virtues of justice and charity. “Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo. This is clearly not an argument: it is merely a reiteration of words, to be completely clear.

However, in the case of ectopic pregnancy, where the foetus has implanted in the fallopian tube, removal of that tube is permissible under the principle of double effect- the surgeon removes the tube, mutilating her and making pregnancy later less likely, in order to save the woman’s life, with the unintended consequence that the foetus dies. However, removal of the foetus from the fallopian tube, saving the tube, is not permitted, because that is the direct act of killing the foetus.

I analyse this situation by its consequences. This is named consequentialist ethics. Consider the choices:

  1. Remove the foetus without damaging the tube. The foetus is dead, the woman’s life is saved, she retains her chances of pregnancy later.
  2. Remove the foetus and the tube. The foetus is dead, the woman’s life is saved, her chances of pregnancy are reduced.

To me, clearly, the first is preferable. The church considers the second preferable because it considers acts rather than consequences. For me, the end justifies the means. For them, the need to avoid the wicked act of directly killing the foetus justifies mutilating the mother.

I cite the legal principle that a person is presumed to intend the consequences of their acts. The Catholic doctor knows that the foetus is implanted in the fallopian tube which s/he removes; how can it be said that the doctor does not intend to kill it?

To me, there are situations where moral rules are useful. Do not lie, do not cheat, do not steal; but it seems to me that I follow rules from virtue ethics rather than deontology: I am not the kind of person who does that. This makes me a moral agent, the judge of my own morality, rather than slavishly following rules thought out before consequentialist ethics was conceived.

Catholic position from The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager.

Benozzo_Gozzoli, the Triumph of Aquinas over Averroes

34 thoughts on “The Catholic Church and abortion

  1. I find do many aspects of Catholicism difficult. I had a close friend from childhood who was very devout. Here in Portugal and Spain I wonder about the devotion. We were recently told that the virgin is not seen as a mother but is. Today we very unquakerley were in a lavish guilted gold convent and then the military museum. It was raining very hard!


  2. “To me, clearly, the second is preferable. The church considers the first preferable because it considers acts rather than consequences. For me, the end justifies the means. For them, the need to avoid the wicked act of directly killing the foetus justifies mutilating the mother.”

    Am I reading this wrong?


    • You probably knew what I meant. Mixing up first and second was a clanging error: thank you for pointing it out. Fixed.

      Added: It might be unfair to judge the Catholic church from a page by its deconvert, so here is a pdf from John Paul Bioethics. They note that the increase in ectopic pregnancies may be caused by behaviours that violate the divine and natural law such as use of contraceptives, and refer to the foetus as “the unborn child”, “he or she” rather than “it”.

      At p 6, they argue that salpingectomy, removal of the tube which may cause infertility, is acceptable, but salpingostomy, removal of the foetus from within the tube, is not. Salpingostomy is not necessary to save her life if this is jeopardized by the tubal pregnancy inasmuch as her life can be preserved by a salpingectomy, whether partial or complete, a procedure performed on the body of the mother, not the child, and one that is not itself a lethal invasion of the unborn child’s body person. They are so forgiving of the intent to kill when it involves removal of the tube that their insistence that removal of the foetus is intentional killing revolts me.

      At p 10 they discuss the views of Fr. Martin Rhonheimer, who argues that where the foetus cannot be saved and the mother will die unless it is removed, that is moral, as the foetus has no chance of survival anyway. They note that this is contrary to Magisterial pronouncements, and that salpingostomy kills the foetus some time before it would rupture the tube, kill the mother and die itself. Rhonheimer’s arguments open the door to “subjective” morality, as if morality could be set by human beings such as Thomas Aquinas and thereafter be “objective”. Killing the foetus is “an offence against God’s eternal law”. Killing in self defence does not involve the taking of innocent human life. p16 shows why the tube has to be destroyed: because otherwise there is a slippery slope to subjective morality.

      So you can kill the foetus by taking it out of the mother inside a fallopian tube but not by taking it out without that tube. That’s insane.

      They recommend that it be made widely known that contraception increases the risk of ectopic pregnancy. Well, that is only against contraception if the risk is unacceptably high: Thank God for subjective morality!

      When the dignity and inviolability of human life are at stake, we turn to the Supreme Roman Pontiff and the magisterium of the Church, and we ask them to address such matters of vital conflict, trusting that the Author of Life will guide them. Unlike with Quakers, however, they will prevent God from guiding them, by insisting on the inviolability of the idiocies of their past.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Claire, thank you. The question was not for any other reason than offered – because I too ponder the “love” in these official rulings. And I thought your post was balanced and helpful. For my own piece of mind (simply because your reply above is “big!” I asked one question of Google: what does the bible say about contraception. This is an extract of the page I looked at:

        “Modern birth control methods were unknown in Bible times, and the Bible is, therefore, silent on the matter. The Bible does have quite a lot to say about children, however.
        (and concludes)
        It all comes down to this: no one has the right to determine whether someone else should or should not use birth control, how many children is the “right” number for them, or whether they should have children at all. As in all things, we are not to judge others or cause brothers and sisters in Christ to stumble, spiritually speaking.”

        That sums it up for me. The hair-splitting was something Jesus never applauded – in fact He trashed quite a few egos when presented with such pontificating. Where that leaves us on the “right to life” and all the passion on both sides … ? I hope it leaves us with voices like yours that seek unity in Love.

        And something a brother in the Lord offered me a while ago which seems to fit here:
        “RELIGION says: I do the work, I get the credit, ad God accepts it. CHRISTIANITY says: God does the work, God gets the credit, and I accept it.”


  3. Hmmm… the basis of catholic moral teaching is oligarchy – I suppose you mean feudalism?
    The basis is more likely the metaphysical view of nature as having inherent ends, and these, being created by God, are normative. Ethics is usually based on metaphysics.
    You are right that Catholic morals don’t make any sense in the modern world, because of modern metaphysics. The starting point of modernity is the desacralization of nature, and the refusal to acknowledge inherent ends. Nature becomes Descartes’ res extensa – an object of manipulation for disembodied human intelligence – res cogitans – and ceases to impose moral claims on people.


    • I meant the rule of a small group of people. When I did my law degree, before Scotland abolished the feudal system, we did some feudal history and I understood it was based on land-holding, and originated after the episcopal structure.

      I have my contraception post for publication on Sunday, where I argue against teleology (or at least deny it) but here my point is simpler: in this particular case of ectopic pregnancy Catholic rules make no sense at all. They make no sense of purpose or intent, and they produce an avoidable bad outcome for no useful purpose. Yet I do find moral claims in nature: it feels wrong to spoil anything without purpose, though one might use it. I am happy that someone might shoot a rabbit in order to eat it, but not for fun.


    • The starting point of modernity is the desacralization of nature, and the refusal to acknowledge inherent ends.


      Let’s correct what you state here, dpmonahan: the starting point of modernity (and reasonable beliefs) is to allow reality itself to arbitrate claims made about it so that we don’t continue to impose our superstitious beliefs on it and fool ourselves into believing nature has ‘inherent’ ends… a foolishness that becomes pernicious when acted upon in such anti-human ways – such as the anti-medical, anti-woman policies of Catholicism regarding human sexuality and reproduction.

      There… fixed that for you No need to thank me.


      • This is an old comment. I’ve since come around to the view that there are no inherent ends in nature and that the attendant beliefs in human rights and environmental conservation are nothing other than pernicious obstacles to my enjoying myself. I now work for a private equity firm that buys forests, cuts them down, and builds breasturants. You ever own a breasturant? It is awesome. All these low-self esteem women with big boobs will do ANYTHING for a job.


        • Why let a false dichotomy bother you? Keep the faith… by hook or by c rook… regardless of the perniciousness of its effects on real people in real life causing real harm. Trivialities…


          • Effects? Harm? I hate to break up your pious superstitions but it makes absolutely no evolutionary difference if one or ten more forests get cut down for one of my breasturants, or ten or 50 more low-self esteem waitresses preform degrading sex acts for me, their manipulative boss. Now stop with you stupid moralizing and appeals to woo.


            • Evolution? What does that have to do with anything… other than demonstrate the absurdity of presuming the universe and everything in it has a purpose that you think you know something about.


            • The only possible arbitrator of whether or not the “harm” I cause to the environment or to the delicate psyches of the waitresses I’m pounding is to an “evil” to be avoided is whether I pass on my genes. Granted it is a limited form of success, we are all going extinct some day, but you need something to while away the time.
              Since I’ve knocked up four hooters girls since my conversion to atheism I think I’m doing pretty good. There was a 5th, but she was a ginger so I ordered her to get an abortion. Can’t cull gingers fast enough.


            • More religidiocy from someone who doesn’t understand what evolution means, how it operates, why it is true, and has no desire except to rely on his own ignorance to try to vilify it in the name of piety. This is what your religious belief brings you to: idiocy.


            • I was under the impression that evolution means species changing over time. The driver, per Darwin, is competition for resources leading to greater specialization. Darwin was just transliterating Adam Smith’s economic theories to biology, so take that with a grain of salt, along with any Darwinian talk of “higher” and “lower” species, and concepts of “fitness” and “progress” which imply sneaking finality in through the back door.
              Knowing this, contemporary evolutionary theory is somewhat less prone to hypostisising the invisible hand “shaping” species, even if you still hear people talking of “progress” as if it were the Holy Spirit. Lets just say that species who survive survive, those who do not do not, mostly because of dumb luck. It is not a tautology because we are talking about the transmission of genes here.
              I’ve planted my genes in half a dozen ditzy cocktail waitresses because I figure hell, may as well be good at something before the big meteor hits. Evolutionary success is better than no success, amirite?
              Except for gingers.


      • Dear Tildeb, thank you for following. I would love you to comment on my today’s post: you would help me get my mind clear on what I think, at what I feel is the heart of our dispute. I will not persuade you that no-platforming is a good thing, and will not try.

        Here, though, I do not want to speak for DP, but on “desacralisation” I will put my slightly different perspective. It is partly bound up in virtue ethics, but mostly on an attitude of respect for what is around me, and desire to care for it.


  4. Clare, you make a good point: the debate surrounding abortion is far too weak on nuance…except for all the nuance that doesn’t matter. I am fairly anti-abortion, myself, in that I would prefer it to be a last recourse (as in the case of preserving my wife’s life). That being said, it has always struck me as odd that a hierarchy by definition distanced from active sexuality is the same group of people endowed with “authority” on questions of something with which they have no experience. I can have an opinion on the subject, but I’m not sure how much weight it should carry, given the fact that I’m not ever going to be faced with that sort of decision regarding my own body.


    • To be clear, I intended the above as a comment on MY approach to the subject, NOT as prescription as to anyone else’s. (I feel I have to add a disclaimer to everything I say these days…)


    • One of the questions is, should termination be a legal matter, or only a medical matter?

      You are entitled to your opinion, and entitled to try to persuade others of it; but you may incur the revulsion of some women. If your wife wants an abortion, you have your own relationship, and can express your view, but here is the story of one husband in that situation, and really I feel it should be her decision.

      The Church in mediaeval times specified those days in which married couples should abstain from sex. These included every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, and all of Advent and Lent. They have abandoned those particular silly rules.


      • “You are entitled to your opinion, and entitled to try to persuade others of it; but you may incur the revulsion of some women. If your wife wants an abortion, you have your own relationship, and can express your view, but here is the story of one husband in that situation, and really I feel it should be her decision.”

        That’s kinda what I meant. Apparently I stink at saying what I mean anymore…

        Liked by 1 person

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