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Is there a case for direct abortion?

by Dr Pravin Thevathasan

Any direct attempt on innocent life as a means to an end – even to the saving of another life – is unlawful.... Never and in no case has the Church taught that the life of the child must be preferred to that of the mother. It is erroneous to put the question with this alternative: either the life of the child or that of the mother.... there can be but one obligation: to make every effort to save the lives of both.”

Pope Pius the XII, Allocution to large families, Nov 26th, 1951.

I declare that direct abortion, that is abortion intended as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.”

Pope John Paul the II, Evangelium Vitae

In late 2009 in the United States, a mother who was deemed unable to continue with her eleven week pregnancy because of pulmonary hypertension, a condition that limits  the ability of the heart and lungs to function normally, had an abortion in a Catholic hospital. The decision was made following a meeting of the hospital Ethics Board and a Catholic nun who sat on the Board was told by her Bishop that she had excommunicated herself.

In an authentic Catholic hospital, a physician would have had an obligation to tell the pregnant woman of the risks of continuing with the pregnancy. She would have further been told that everything possible would be done to save the lives of both mother and child but that a direct abortion would not be offered in a Catholic hospital. This being the United States, the woman may choose to seek an alternative opinion elsewhere.

The Bishop of the diocese, Thomas Olmstead, stated: “I am gravely concerned by the fact that an abortion was performed in a Catholic hospital. I am further concerned by the hospital’s statement that the termination of a human life was necessary to treat the mother’s underlying medical condition. An unborn child is not a disease. While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother’s life, by which means they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child.”

Various attempts have been made to justify direct abortion in this case. Professor Tina Beatie, director of a research centre for Catholic studies at Roehampton University writes: “The intention in this case was not to kill the child but to save the mother.” It would appear that Beatie is here confusing the motive of a moral act with the object of the moral act. There are certain moral acts, including the intentional killing an unborn child, that are intrinsically evil acts by their very nature and not because of their motive or outcome. Certainly the physicians were motivated by the good desire to save the life of the mother just as a man who kills his elderly father by a  desire to end human suffering may have had a good motive. However, the object in both cases remains the same: the direct killing of an innocent human being. This always constitutes a grave moral disorder.

The motive is what moves us psychologically to do the sorts of moral acts we choose to do. Nevertheless, it is the object that defines the act, that gives it its moral character. An objectively evil act can never become good because of a good motive, another way of saying that the end does not justify the means.

Beatie appears to reject the science of Genetics in favour of the flawed Aristotelian theory of delayed animation:

The idea of ensoulment serves as a reminder that the coming into being of a human person is not an instantaneous event but a gradual process, not only in terms of the biological process of fertilisation, implantation and cellular division but also in terms of the developing consciousness of the mother and her relationship to the child.”

Presumably, according to this view, if the mother is not conscious of a developing relationship with the child, this would then justify abortion at any time during the pregnancy.

Beatie uses  this difficult and tragic case to justify liberal abortion laws:

Statistics show that when women have ready access to contraception and abortion laws are liberal, abortion rates are lower than in the largely catholic countries of central and South America, despite the fact that abortion in such countries is often illegal and poses a significant risk to a woman’s life.” She does not provide any credible evidence for her considerable claims. Has she made a study of the relevant statistics in Nicaragua? Is she satisfied with the “liberal” abortion law in Britain that has led to seven million abortions?

Father Charles Curran also appears to believe that the intentional killing of innocent human life may be justified if there is a proportionate reason: “Saving the life of the mother is a proportionate reason justifying abortion.”

Although Curran’s article is entitled “Catholics are not utilitarians,” the ethics of proportionate good is indeed a type of consequentialism. The primary focus is on the consequences rather than in the intended act. According to this theory, we may intend evil for the sake of attaining a proportionate end. We may, for example, torture or murder an entirely innocent man if this leads to the release of a number of hostages. Curran appears unable to accept that moral acts can be described as good and evil in and of themselves.

Curran ends his article: “It is clear that many theologians and some bishops have come to the conclusion that an abortion to save the life of the mother is a morally good act.”

Beatie has used this case to argue in favour of liberal abortion laws and Curran argues that direct abortion may be morally good. Such statements provide reasons to answer the question “Is there a case for direct abortion?” with a resounding “no.”

It is surprising that such articles, so flagrantly in violation of magisterial teaching, are to be found in a magazine  sold at the entrance of a Catholic Cathedral, thus further confusing an already confused laity.


Beatie, T “ In the balance,” The Tablet, 5th June 2010, page 6-7

Curran, C “Catholics are not utilitarians,” The Tablet, 5th June 2010, page 4-5

Copyright ©; Dr Pravin Thevathasan 2010

Version: 23rd December 2014

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