A couple of generations ago, when the average decent member of the British public looked for reasons of substance rather than simple convenience before electing for abortion, the danger to the mother’s life was often cited. We hear of this much more rarely now – perhaps because the question has been settled, or perhaps because better medical techniques have so often saved the day.
But it is back again: Sister Margaret Mary McBride, who sits on the ethics board of a hospital in the United States, is in trouble for approving the abortion of an 11 week unborn child to save the mother’s life. While she was, under canon law, automatically excommunicated, her bishop has emphasised his disapproval by making the excommunication public.
I make no judgment of Sister McBride’s good faith or religious devotion; I make no judgment whether the bishop was right to raise the stakes. I understand that they are both people of high reputation. My only concern is to look at the principles.
And the bare principles are straightforward. Both mother and child are human beings with an equal right to life. A heroic mother might choose to sacrifice her life to save her baby but the baby cannot make such a choice. Thus, at this level, it is open and shut.
The situation is different when the death of the unborn child is an unwanted side effect. This might occur when the pregnancy takes root in the fallopian tube. It would be legitimate to remove the tube even though the baby within cannot survive. Provided that the intention is to heal the mother and that the child’s death is not the means of this healing, and provided that the outcome is proportionate, then the act of removal is justified.
We must assume that in the McBride case the continuation of the pregnancy is sincerely believed to be fatal to the mother (accepting that medical prognoses are often fallible) and that the removal of the baby will give the mother a reasonable prospect of survival. So the issue of proportion is satisfied.
But the main condition is not. The action to be taken is not the removal of a diseased organ (eg, a fallopian tube) but the removal of the baby, thereby killing it. This is directly to sacrifice the baby’s life for the saving of the mother.
To look for arguments against this rigorous position I would go to trustworthy, lay Catholic authority. I stipulate “lay” because every cleric is bound by oath to uphold the orthodox position, and so cannot help us. Who better than Professor Tina Beattie of Roehampton University, who is often in the public eye on gender questions concerning the Church? And immediately I am concerned.
In her article in The Tablet (June 5) I read first that the Church’s attitude has its roots “in the belief that the moral value of an action lies in its intention”. Not so. Good intention is necessary but it is not sufficient. The action itself must not be objectively evil. She continues by saying that many would think the situation under consideration is too complex for formulaic judgments. But what matters here is not whether the judgment is formulaic (presumably she means “definite”) but whether it is correct and applies in a given context.
She then expresses surprise that a Church which has behaved so incompetently over the sex abuse question can be so decisive over abortion. Such ad hominem arguments have their place in emotional rhetoric but not in discussion by an academic. Nor, even here, does she notice that killing a child in the womb is a substantially worse abuse than paedophilia.
She puts emphasis on the change in the Church’s attitude on early and late abortion. But she fails to mention that this is a response to a new and fuller scientific understanding of the process of conception. Aristotle’s view on ensoulment, based on a misunderstanding of conception and genetic development, was in need of updating after 2,500 years. Old rulings based on faulty facts are not relevant.
More disturbingly, she creates her own rules for designating personhood and, by implication, human rights. She regards personhood as something which is gradually acquired and dependent on relationship: “It is hard to see how any embryo can be deemed a person before even the mother enters into a rudimentary relationship with it.” Not only is this criterion gratuitous, it is extremely dangerous. In too many historical incidents those in power (in this case the mother and the doctors) have defined humanity in terms of their own priorities. Of course Professor Beattie is in good faith here – which is why my blood runs cold, for unjust discrimination can start with the best intentions.
There are a few theological experts in this area who argue that an embryo is not ensouled for the few days during which a single conceptus can clone into twins, but that is not an issue at 11 weeks. More interesting, I think, is whether the status of the act is altered by the fact that, if the mother dies, the foetus will die anyhow. Or whether, as is possible in some cases, the foetus can be extracted from its abnormal siting in the fallopian tube – allowing the tube to be restored to its normal capacity. The foetus cannot survive whether or not the tube is removed.
My concern here is that it is emotionally tempting to side with the known, loved and needed mother rather than the invisible foetus. A person of standing and influence could well provide a rationale for unwary Catholics and accusations of inconsistency from our opponents. Choosing to grade human beings and so differentiate their rights is a step toward the abyss.
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