Abortion in the case of rape AND the life of the mother

I recently watched a video on YouTube which had an excellent thought experiment in responds to the violinist thought experiment which is often cited to show that abortion is morally permissable. I’ll paraphrase it.

Say we have someone, Steve, on a balcony high up on an apartment building. He has a job that he wants that is very important to him, and he just got a call that if he does not leave for the job interview right now, he will not get the job. Then out of nowhere, he sees someone, Tom, a few floors above him falling to his death. Steve’s reflexes come in and he holds onto Tom’s hand. Steve is not able to lift Tom onto his balcony, but if he lets go of Tom, Tom will fall to his death. Tom is now using Steve’s body for the sake of his own life without Steve’s permission, and Steve’s holding onto Tom has cost him a very important job of his. Now if the point behind the violinist thought experiment holds, then even though Tom is a human being, it is completely morally permissable for Steve to let go of Tom so Tom can fall from his death, because Tom is using Steve’s body without his permission. But surely this isn’t right. If you were to see this scenario play out on the news, and Steve decided to let go of Tom and run to get his job, would you have no problem with it? Of course not.

Now at the end he mentioned another scenario. What if Steve reached far down to save Tom, and he himself was about to fall out of the balcony to his death if he didn’t let go? If the Catholic teaching on abortion is right, then if I recall correctly, Steve would be morally obligated to keep holding on to Tom, even when his life is in danger.

Now I think the latter scenario would only be a powerful argument if Steve wasn’t responsible for Tom falling down in the first place, so I think it would only work if it was also in the case of rape, thus the title of the thread. But I have trouble saying it would be wrong in that last scenario for Steve to let go of Tom so he could try to get back on the balcony to save his life.

In general, I don’t see too many apologists addressing the scenario of abortion in the case of both rape and the mother’s life being in danger.

I don’t think the abortion argument usually hinges on who is responsible for the child being in the womb. It usually hinges on direct killing verses taking some other action where death is an expected side effect that is not intended. (or you could say the principle of double effect)

Usually it is considered to be unintended that the child has lodged in some place other than the womb or what-knot that is causing the danger.

I will only address the Church’s teaching. Abortion is the voluntary taking of an innocent life under all circumstances, even the one you mentioned.


This article is well worth a read: Defusing the Violinist Analogy. It’s very interesting and at the end the author considers a similar analogy:

[quote=]Let us consider a competing analogy, which cuts to the heart of the matter. Suppose you live in a cabin far out in the wilderness, cut off from civilization by extreme distance and weather for much of the year, say, nine months. You have provisions for yourself, but no large excess of stores. One day you return to the cabin to discover that an infant has been left at the door without explanation. You have done nothing to invite its presence, and certainly you have not given somebody permission to abandon it on your doorstep. Do you have an obligation to care for the infant, who will surely die if you do not take it in?

(Spoiler alert: Yes, you do have an obligation to care for said infant. :slight_smile:

I’m interested in trying to deconstruct the analogy of the man on the cliff, but I have to get the kiddies to bed…

You are mistaken. Steve has no obligation to hold on. There is no natural duty to place oneself in danger. It is a heroic virtue to do so, but not a moral obligation.

In general, I don’t see too many apologists addressing the scenario of abortion in the case of both rape and the mother’s life being in danger.

The same logic applies for both the mother’s life being in danger, and pregnancy due to rape; the child has an absolute natural right to be in its mother’s womb.

In both your hypothetical examples, a question pops into my mind: why was Tom falling? In the case of the unborn baby, his/her only intent is to mature and eventually be born. Did Tom jump? Was he pushed? Did the building collapse?

As to Steve, the hypothetical savior in your examples, is saving Tom’s life worth more than a job? If not, why did Steve reach out to grab Tom in the first place? Sure, Steve may be a great guy but he must have been conditioned by past good deeds to have such a hypothetical instinct.

Death is this life is not the focus of Catholics; we’re focused on Eternal Life. In your hypothetical example where Steve could be pulled to his death if he chooses to hold on to Tom, Steve faces the ultimate test of faith. And only Steve will know what to do in this situation.

Finally, in your hypothetical examples, there is a split second decision required. Tom is falling and Steve must take action quickly or Tom will pass and fall to his hypothetical death. Gestation is 9 months for a human baby. The element of time is surely not the same importance with your hypothetical examples and a real baby. The mother has time to carefully consider the consequences to her baby. On one hand, she can choose to birth the baby and put him/her up for adoption or to keep her baby and raise him/her in the life of Christ. On the other hand is certain death for the baby and potentially Eternal Death for the mother. It is not an easy decision and that’s why Catholics are urged to treat sex as a sacramental gift from God reserved for married couples rather than a recreational sport to be played for fun.

God Bless you.

You don’t see too many people talk about it because it would be so rare in real life.
I think most of us are concerned about the abortion mills that kill city numbers of children every year, rather than mind games about what ifs that do little to address the great injustice and moral evil of abortion today.
This is not an issue I wish to spend time on in parlor discussion like some undergraduate dissecting Descartes proof for existence.
This is one of the most virulent evils we have allowed into our society and it is important we have a response ready before God as to our actions to oppose this scourge.

The bottom line is: what did the child do to deserve having his/her life taken?

Even condemned criminals have a judicial process, appeals, and so on before they are put to death. Not a baby.

In the case of the mother’s life being in danger, sure, therapeutic processes can happen to try to save the mother’s life. And, sadly, if the baby dies as the result of that therapeutic process, then that is a regrettable secondary result of the therapeutic procedure. But the intent, in that case, is to repair the mother…not to kill the baby.

I found it interesting that the author that you point to wishes to ground the obligation is something like you being strong and the child being vulnerable. I would have just gone with the universal destination of goods, so the food in your remote cabin is a resource that the child has a claim to, if there is no other food. But then I realized that the infant, even if it has a claim to the food in your cabin, cannot feed itself, thus obliging you to provide the service of feeding it its food. Be it an infant or a starving extremely ill grown person, you need to make a reasonable effort to feed them until other arrangements can be made.

Interestingly, the article wishes to say you have an obligation to feed the person, but specifically declines to argue that the person has a right to be fed. If so, then perhaps the argument is even intended to apply if the child in the womb is not the child of the woman whose womb it is. This would be in the case of a woman having been kidnapped and forced into being a surrogate mother or something (unlikely, but possible). I’d never tried to consider the obligations in that situation before. So thanks for bringing the article to the attention of the thread.

But what if the infant would die anyway? The issue at hand in the scenario is that the baby will die either way but the mother can save her own life. How would we defend the claim that the mother is morally obligated not to? Ho would you say that the analogy in the OP is a bad one, or that in the analogy it would be morally impermissable for Steve to let go of Tom to save his own life?

How is the thought experiment disanalogous to a pregnancy? Also if the thought experiment in the OP is disanalogous, how else would you respond to the violinist thought experiment?

You could easily tweak the thought experiment by simply having Tom be a baby. I don’t know if how the baby fell off has anything to do with this; the only thing that matters is that it is out of Steve’s control.

I have no problem saying that in the thought experiment untweaked (where Steve’s life is in no danger), it is completely wrong for Steve to let go of Tom. The problem I have is that the consequence of Catholic teaching seems to be that if Steve’s life is in danger, he is still morally obligated to hold on to Tom, even though Tom will die either way.

I’m not sure what your point is… “only Steve would know” isn’t an answer as to whether Steve is morally obligated to hold on.

The passage of time only affects whether someone would do something “in the moment” or not, and it is not morally relevant to the analogy. Say Steve is very good at fast-thinking and can morally deliberate much more quickly than most of us can; he is not affected by the moment, so to speak. As for the last part of that last paragraph, that’s why I made it clear that I only have a problem with the Catholic teaching in the thought experiment if Tom falling is completely out of Steve’s control, i.e. rape. It has to be a rape AND the mother’s life has to be in danger, in order for me to have a problem with accepting the teaching here. Other than that I accept it with no qualms. Indeed, KnownNoMore’s thought experiment is very good.

Indeed, but if the thought experiment holds it would still disprove Catholic teaching even if it doesn’t justify the terrible numbers of abortions since Roe v. Wade. I take orthodoxy very seriously and I am not content with brushing aside a “minor detail” of Catholic teaching if it is in fact dogma.

Ah thanks :slight_smile:
I’m definitely more comfortable with accepting the Church teaching now.

Although I don’t think you realized that I’m combining the two what ifs, but I still think your answer is good.

My apologies, CSF, I had reversed the names and thank you for correcting me graciously. I would like to offer my opinion on your condition of rape and mother’s life being in danger. I’m guessing that your implication is that the pregnancy itself threatens the life of the mother. I’m reminded of a news story I read not too long ago where a mother had to make the choice between her unborn child or fighting her eye cancer. The mother chose to surgically remove her eye that had the cancer in order to give her baby the chance to live; the cancer treatment would have threatened her baby if she had chosen to fight it while the baby was still within her. Not the same case as a pregnancy threatening the life of the mother but this is a very tough decision.

God Bless you.

There is a difference between stopping an attempt to save a life and directly killing someone. Tom and Steve are the first, abortion is the second. Let’s modify the analogy as so: suppose that Tom and Steve are sitting on the window cleaning bench high up in the air, and Steve realizes that part of the cable got damaged, and it’s not now strong enough to support both their weight. He then gets up, walks over to Tom (who is just sitting there innocently and hasn’t noticed a problem) and pushes him off. That is abortion.

Thanks. I think the original analogy could be used to refute the violinist argument though, even though it isn’t analogous to the life of the mother because it is too weak.

After reading these conversations I am once again so thankful for CAF where people can discuss and theorize and conclude and still love God with whole heart, mind, soul and being… Thank you for caring enough to attempt to explain an answer in line with church teaching… you are helping more people than just the OP!!! :wink:

Ok, I will bite here because I am REALLY confused.

Take this scenario.

Mother at 34 weeks with preeclampsia or toxemia. BP sky high, meds not working. Patient starts seizing. MD must deliver baby immediately to save them both. = viable fetus, probably a good outcome.

Same mother at 15 weeks= death of fetus.

In this case the only Treatment is an abortion correct?

My confusion is this… Is it the intent (to kill the baby) that makes the difference? I see the issue as a glass half full/glass half empty issue in that it is a very FINE line that separates the two.

I’m having trouble explaining myself today so please bear with me. But The way I see it… sugar coating an action or putting a "positive " spin on it is just word play for the same action and effect.

Intent- to save the mother, but not to kill the baby, this was an unfortunate effect- OK? Right?

So then wouldn’t most deliveries of preterm infants for the purpose of saving the mothers life AS LONG as the mother didn’t intend for the baby to die (even though she knew survival was impossible?) be permissible?


First, I agree the violinist thought experiment is profoundly dumb and even question-begging. Because of course we, as Catholics, would argue that dependency creates obligation, so unplugging him would be justifiable only on the utilitarian grounds we already reject and which the experiment was supposed to prove.

The problem with the scenario you outline is that abortion is not morally the equivalent of letting go of Tom in order to save one’s own life. In that case, one does not intend Tom’s death as an end it itself. But abortion does, in fact, intend the death of the fetus. Hence abortion is morally the equivalent of pushing Tom off a balcony.

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