Human life is a precious gift from Godwho made man and woman in His own image and likeness. The human being has the dignity of being a person, not just a something but a someone, by virtue of possessing a rational and spiritual soul. Human life, which begins the moment a distinct human being is conceived in the womb of his mother, is therefore sacred and inviolable. It is not to be harmed, let alone destroyed. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “No one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being” (CCC 2258).

As we reflect upon the ethical treatmentof human beings in the beginning stages of life, we find that our first conclusion has already been drawn. It is the conclusion expressed in the fifth commandment: “You shall not kill.” Setting aside the difficult cases in which killing might be justified, such as self-defense, military combat, and capital punishment, we can understand the commandment as meaning, at the very least, “You shall not murder.” That is to say, “You shall not deliberately kill the innocent.” When we apply this commandment to the treatment of human beings at the beginning stages of life, between conception and birth, it could be rendered, “You shall not deliberately kill an unborn human being” or “You shall not commit direct abortion.”

Direct abortion is the deliberate killing of a human being in the womb of her mother. When people talk about abortion, this is usually what they mean. However, the term “abortion” can be applied more broadly to include any death of an unborn child. In this sense, an abortion can be either spontaneous, when the death of the child is from natural causes, or induced, when it is brought about through deliberate human intervention. An induced abortion can be either direct, when the death of the child is deliberately chosen, or indirect, when the death of the child is brought about as a side effect of another deliberately chosen action. An example of an indirect induced abortion might be the surgical removal of a pregnant but cancerous uterus. The deliberately chosen action in this example may be the removal of the cancerous organ for the purpose of saving the life of the mother. The death of the child is a side effect, a regrettable consequence, that may not have deliberately chosen.

It is important to understand what is meant by the words “direct” and “indirect” in these considerations. An abortion is called “direct,” not because killing follows directly from a physical action, but because it follows directly from a person’s choice. In the example just considered, the abortion may be indirect not because the doctor’s scalpel directly touched the uterus and not the unborn child. The abortion may be indirect because the removal of the cancerous uterus is what the mother and doctor chose to do. That is the direct object of their will. Causing the death of the unborn child is not. If we suppose that their choices were different, for example, if they chose to remove the woman’s uterus as a way of causing the child’s death, the resulting abortion would not be indirect but direct.

Direct abortion, the deliberate killing of a human being in the womb of his mother, is always morally evil. It is a particular instance of what is forbidden by the fifth commandment. That is to say, direct abortion is an instance of murder.

We need to be careful, however, to be clear about what this does and does not mean. It means that direct abortion is included under the definition of murder: the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. It does not mean that everyone who procures a direct abortion is a murderer. To be a murderer is to freely commit murder with an understanding of what it is you are doing. Many mothers, probably the great majority of mothers, who procure the direct abortion of their children, do not freely chose direct abortion with an understanding what they are doing. They may be pressured or manipulated or misinformed or all of the above. In such cases, their guilt for what they have done might be greatly diminished. But no matter what a mother’s degree of guilt might be, she has a loving and merciful God who wants nothing more than to forgive her. As God’s people, we do well to imitate God’s mercy and withhold our judgment.

In many cases, it is obvious when an abortion is a direct abortion. When a woman chooses to have an abortion because the she does not want the child – even if she is pressured, misinformed or otherwise not fully responsible for the evil being committed – it is a direct abortion. In that case, irrespective of that woman’s degree of guilt, the action she chose is morally evil. In some cases, however, it is not so easy to judge whether and induced abortion is direct or indirect, morally evil or morally justified. More difficult cases include when a woman is raped or her life is endangered, situations that many people regard as exceptional. Other less obvious cases involve the treatment of newly developing human beings in scientific experiments or fertility treatments. We will consider those more difficult cases in future reflections.