THE ETHICS of BEGINNING-OF-LIFE HEALTH CARE, PART III: ABORTION in TRAUMATIC CIRCUMSTANCES

A direct abortion is an abortion that is deliberately chosen and is always morally wrong. It is morally wrong because it is a kind of murder, an instance of deliberately killing an innocent human being. Since it is an instance of murder, direct abortion is in violation of the natural and divine laws that are expressed in the fifth commandment: “You shall not kill.”

We should recall that, in calling direct abortion murder, we do not necessarily mean that the people responsible for it are murderers. Very often, those who choose to have abortions are under pressure from others and are misinformed. Such a person would not be fully responsible for the immoral action he or she chose to commit and can rely on God’s abundant mercy.

Be that as it may, direct abortion is still murder. The action that is chosen is always wrong, even if the one making the choice is not be fully responsible for the wrongdoing. Having determined this, we might then ask which cases of abortion constitute direct abortion. Answering that question is sometimes quite easy. Take, for example, the case of a mother who chooses to have an abortion because she simply does not want the child. We can easily recognize the abortion in that case as a direct abortion, deliberately chosen and morally wrong. There are other cases, however, that are more difficult to judge. Let us consider two cases in which difficulties arise from trauma suffered by the mother: (1) when the conception of the child results from rape and (2) when an abortion is chosen in order to save the mother’s life.

A woman who conceives a child as a result of being raped clearly deserves a great deal of sympathy. This is true not only because of the physical and emotional trauma suffered as a result of that detestable crime, but also because of the burden of carrying in her womb the child of her attacker. This burden is a double injustice. The victimized woman does not deserve the negative consequences of a pregnancy she in no way chose to bring about. Moreover, she does not deserve to be the mother of a child who cannot help but be a constant reminder of the man who raped her. Given this horrible injustice, it is easy to see how aborting the child might seem like a compassionate and reasonable solution.

Notwithstanding these considerations, however, an abortion in these circumstances would be a direct abortion and therefore morally wrong. It would be a deliberately chosen act of killing an innocent human being. The conception of the child in this case is justifiably unwanted. If the mother could go back in time to protect herself for conceiving a child in this way, she would be more than justified in doing so. Once the child is conceived, however, it is an innocent human being who does not deserve to be killed, no matter how horridly his father has sinned.

Two wrongs do not make a right. Rape is a horrible sin and a resulting pregnancy is a grave injustice to the woman who was victimized. Adding the injustice of direct abortion doesn’t undo the injustices of rape. Difficult as the situation continues to be for the woman who is both victim and mother, killing her child is neither a compassionate nor reasonable solution.

An abortion that is chosen for the sake of preserving the life or health of the mother is sometimes called a therapeutic abortion. As in the previous case, an abortion in this situation could seem reasonable when we consider the sympathetic state of the mother who is sick or whose life is threatened. It turns out, however, that therapeutic abortions are, most often, direct abortions, and are therefore morally wrong.

If the principle in the previous case was, “two wrongs do not make a right,” the principle in this case is, “the ends do not justify the means.” To put it in Biblical terms, we should not “do evil that good may come of it” (Rom 3:8). We should not kill one person to save another person. Even when our end or goal is a good one, if the means to that end is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being, our act will be immoral. An abortion that is deliberately chosen is a wrongful action even when it is done for the good purpose of preserving the health of life of the mother.

The right approach to these difficult situations is to try to preserve the life and health of both mother and child. Recognizing both mother and child as human beings deserving respect and protection, the proper aim is to do everything possible to preserve both lives. In some cases, this may not be possible. It may be justifiable in such cases to attempt to save one person while allowing the death of the other. That would be an example of an indirect abortion, like the case of the removal of a pregnant woman’s cancerous uterus that we previously considered. In that case, the death of the child, though foreseen, is not deliberately chosen. If the child’s death is deliberately chosen, the abortion is direct and the action is immoral, even when it is chosen in order to achieve a good purpose.

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