US Bishops Clarify Abortion "for" Mother's Health

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 25, 2010 ( Direct abortion is never morally permissible, but there are some medical procedures that are legitimate to protect the life of a pregnant mother, even if they might result in the death of her child.

This clarification was made in a statement Wednesday by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine.

The committee statement comes in response to a Nov. 5, 2009, abortion at a Catholic hospital in Arizona, which was later publicly judged as morally wrong by the city’s bishop, Thomas Olmstead.

The case brought national media attention, particularly because a nun working at the hospital supported the decision to perform the abortion. According to reports, the mother of the child was suffering from pulmonary hypertension, and the pregnancy was thus judged dangerous for her life.

Setting it straight

The bishops’ committee noted «confusion among the faithful» regarding the principles to be used to evaluate the case, and thus offered observations on the «distinction between medical procedures that cause direct abortions and those that may indirectly result in the death of an unborn child.»

The statement quoted the «Ethical and Religious Directive for Catholic Health Care Services» in No. 45, which condemns abortion, including abortions carried out in the first stage after the child is conceived.

The directive states: «Abortion — that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus — is never permitted. Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion, which, in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo.»

Thus, the committee statement affirms, «Direct abortion is never morally permissible. One may never directly kill an innocent human being, no matter what the reason.»

Different case

The committee added that a contrasting case arises in some situations where it might be permissible to perform a «medical procedure on a pregnant woman that directly treats a serious health problem but that also has a secondary effect that leads to the death of the developing child.»

The statement again cites the ERD, No. 47: «Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.»


The bishops’ committee went on to offer two contrasting examples: a pregnant woman experiencing problems with one or more of her organs, apparently as a result of the added burden of pregnancy; and a pregnant woman with cancer in her uterus.

In the first case, a doctor might recommend abortion, but this scenario describes an immoral direct abortion.

They explained: «The surgery directly targets the life of the unborn child. It is the surgical instrument in the hands of the doctor that causes the child’s death. The surgery does not directly address the health problem of the woman, for example, by repairing the organ that is malfunctioning. The surgery is likely to improve the functioning of the organ or organs, but only in an indirect way, i.e., by lessening the overall demands placed upon the organ or organs, since the burden posed by the pregnancy will be removed. The abortion is the means by which a reduced strain upon the organ or organs is achieved. As the Church has said many times, direct abortion is never permissible because a good end cannot justify an evil means.»

In the second case — that of the cancerous uterus — «an urgently-needed medical procedure indirectly and unintentionally — although foreseeably — results in the death of an unborn child,» the committee explained. «In this case the surgery directly addresses the health problem of the woman, i.e., the organ that is malfunctioning — the cancerous uterus. The woman’s health benefits directly from the surgery, because of the removal of the cancerous organ. The surgery does not directly target the life of the unborn child. The child will not be able to live long after the uterus is removed from the woman’s body, but the death of the child is an unintended and unavoidable side effect and not the aim of the surgery.»

The committee reiterated: «There is nothing intrinsically wrong with surgery to remove a malfunctioning organ. It is morally justified when the continued presence of the organ causes problems for the rest of the body. Surgery to terminate the life of an innocent person, however, is intrinsically wrong. There are no situations in which it can be justified.»

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