Abortion may be briefly defined as the loss of a fetal life.
It was long debated among the learned at what period of gestation the human embryo begins to be animated by therational, spiritual soul, which elevates man above all other species of the animal creation and survives the body to live forever. The keenest mind among the ancient philosophers, Aristotle, had conjectured that the future child was endowed at conception with a principle of only vegetative life, which was exchanged after a few days for an animalsoul, and was not succeeded by a rational soul till later; his followers said on the fortieth day for a male, and the eightieth for a female, child. The authority of his great name and the want of definite knowledge to the contrarycaused this theory to be generally accepted up to recent times.
Accidental causes may be of many different kinds. Sometimes the embryo, instead of developing in the uterus, remains in one of the ovaries, or gets lodged in one of the Fallopian tubes, or is precipitated into the abdomen, resulting, in any of these cases, in an ectopic, or extra-uterine gestation. This almost invariably brings on the death of the fetus, and is besides often fraught with serious danger to the mother. Even if an ectopic child should live to maturity, it cannot be born by the natural channel — but, once it has become viable, it may be saved by a surgical operation. Most commonly the embryo develops in the uterus; but there, too, it is exposed to a great variety of dangers, especially during the first months of its existence. There may be remote predispositions in the mother to contract diseases fatal to her offspring. Heredity, malformation, syphilis, advanced age, excessive weakness, effects of former sicknesses, etc. may be causes of danger; even the climate may exercise an unfavorable influence. More immediate causes of abortion may be found in cruel treatment of the mother by her husband or in starvation, or any kind of hardship. Her own indiscretion is often to blame; as when she undertakes excessive labours or uses intoxicating drinks too freely. Anything in fact that causes a severe shock to the bodily frame or the nervous system of the mother may be fatal to the child in her womb. On the part of the father, syphilis, alcoholism, old age, and physical weakness may act unfavourably on the offspring at any time of its existence. The frequency of accidental abortions is no doubt very great; it must differ considerably according to the circumstances, so that the proportion between successful and unsuccessful conceptions is beyond the calculation of the learned.
Intentional abortions are distinguished by medical writers into two classes.
When they are brought about for social reasons, they are called criminalabortions; and they are rightly condemned under any circumstances whatsoever. "Often, very often," said Dr. Hodge, of the University of Pennsylvania, "must all the eloquence and all the authority of the practitioner be employed; often he must, as it were, grasp the conscience of his weak and erring patient, and let her know, in language not to be misunderstood, that she is responsible to the Creator for the life of the being within her" (Wharton and Stille's Med. Jurispr., Vol. on Abortion, 11).
The name of obstetrical abortion is given by physicians to such as is performed to save the life of the mother. Whether this practice is ever morally lawful we shall consider below.
It is evident that the determination of what is right or wrong in human conduct belongs to the science of ethics and the teaching of religious authority. Both of these declare the Divine law, "Thou shalt not kill". The embryonic child, as seen above, has a human soul; and therefore is a man from the time of its conception; therefore it has an equal right to itslife with its mother; therefore neither the mother, nor medical practitioner, nor any human being whatever can lawfully take that life away. The State cannot give such right to the physician; for it has not itself the right to put an innocent person to death. No matter how desirable it might seem to be at times to save the life of the mother,common sense teaches and all nations accept the maxim, that "evil is never to be done that good may come of it"; or, which is the same thing, that "a good end cannot justify a bad means". Now it is an evil means to destroy the life of an innocent child. The plea cannot be made that the child is an unjust aggressor. It is simply where nature and its ownparents have put it. Therefore, Natural Law forbids any attempt at destroying fetal life.
What the Catholic Church Says
The teachings of the Catholic Church admit of no doubt on the subject. Such moral questions, when they are submitted, are decided by the Tribunal of the Holy Office. Now this authority decreed, 28 May, 1884, and again, 18 August, 1889, that "it cannot be safely taught in Catholic schools that it is lawful to perform . . . any surgical operation which is directly destructive of the life of the fetus or the mother." Abortion was condemned by name, 24 July, 1895, in answer to the question whether when the mother is in immediate danger of death and there is no other means of saving herlife, a physician can with a safe conscience cause abortion not by destroying the child in the womb (which was explicitly condemned in the former decree), but by giving it a chance to be born alive, though not being yet viable, it would soon expire. The answer was that he cannot. After these and other similar decisions had been given, somemoralists thought they saw reasons to doubt whether an exception might not be allowed in the case of ectopic gestations. Therefore the question was submitted: "Is it ever allowed to extract from the body of the mother ectopic embryos still immature, before the sixth month after conception is completed?" The answer given, 20 March, 1902, was: "No; according to the decree of 4 May, 1898; according to which, as far as possible, earnest and opportune provision is to be made to safeguard the life of the child and of the mother. As to the time, let the questioner remember that no acceleration of birth is licit unless it be done at a time, and in ways in which, according to the usual course of things, the life of the mother and the child be provided for". Ethics, then, and the Church agree in teaching that no action is lawful which directly destroys fetal life. It is also clear that extracting the living fetus before it is viable, is destroying its life as directly as it would be killing a grown man directly to plunge him into a medium in which he cannot live, and hold him there till he expires.
However, if medical treatment or surgical operation, necessary to save a mother's life, is applied to her organism (though the child's death would, or at least might, follow as a regretted but unavoidable consequence), it should not be maintained that the fetal life is thereby directly attacked. Moralists agree that we are not always prohibited from doing what is lawful in itself, though evil consequences may follow which we do not desire. The good effects of our acts are then directly intended, and the regretted evil consequences are reluctantly permitted to follow because we cannot avoid them. The evil thus permitted is said to be indirectly intended. It is not imputed to us provided four conditionsare verified, namely:
That we do not wish the evil effects, but make all reasonable efforts to avoid them;
That the immediate effect be good in itself;
That the evil is not made a means to obtain the good effect; for this would be to do evil that good might come of it — a procedure never allowed;
That the good effect be as important at least as the evil effect.
All four conditions may be verified in treating or operating on a woman with child. The death of the child is not intended, and every reasonable precaution is taken to save its life; the immediate effect intended, the mother's life, isgood — no harm is done to the child in order to save the mother — the saving of the mother's life is in itself as goodas the saving of the child's life. Of course provision must be made for the child's spiritual as well as for its physicallife, and if by the treatment or operation in question the child were to be deprived of Baptism, which it could receive if the operation were not performed, then the evil would be greater than the good consequences of the operation. In this case the operation could not lawfully be performed. Whenever it is possible to baptize an embryonic child before it expires, Christian charity requires that it be done, either before or after delivery; and it may be done by any one, even though he be not a Christian.
If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.
Here are some numbers:
- 20 million users around the world read Aleteia.org every month
- Aleteia is published every day in eight languages: English, French, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
- Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
- Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
- Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
- We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)
As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.
Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!