George A. Sprecace M.D.,
J.D., F.A.C.P. and Allergy Associates of New
ZENIT, The world seen from Rome
US Bishops Clarify Abortion for Mother's Health
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WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 25, 2010 (Zenit.org).- 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
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."
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
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
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