Could abortion ever be justified as self defense?


#1

Now, I have always believed that abortion is wrong and unjustified because it is the killing of an innocent human person and I hold to the Catholic Church’s teaching on this issue to this day. However, I was thinking about the very difficult issue of when a woman’s life is threatened. We know that killing can be justified under certain conditions. For example, in the case of self defense. Now a child in the womb could hardly be described as someone intentionally trying to kill her mother. However, in society can we justify certain similar situations of killing innocent people for self defense? For example, If a terrorist takes over a plane to fly it into a building can we justify blowing up the plane to save the people in the building even if there are innocent people on that plane? I suppose you can argue that it is the lesser of two evils to blow up the plane since those innocent people are going to die anyways when the plane crashes. But, similarly, if the life of a mother is threatened such that both the mother and the child will die, then would it be the lesser of two evils to abort the child? Or should the mother be allowed to die and the plane be allowed to crash into the building, because we can not kill innocent people?


#2

Here is something that should help answer the question:

"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 conditions are verified, namely:

  1. That we do not wish the evil effects, but make all reasonable efforts to avoid them;

  2. That the immediate effect be good in itself;

  3. 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;

  4. 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."

From: newadvent.org/cathen/01046b.htm


#3

I read the article and it seems to be saying that abortion is never justified even to save the life of the mother because the end does not justify the means.

However, it also seems to be saying that an operation to save the life of the mother that indirectly harms the child may be permissible as long as its goal is not to harm the child. What would be an example of this?

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 her life, 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, some moralists 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.


#4

The example would be an ectopic pregnancy (you can research that on the internet). But as mentioned, abortion is never allowed because by definition it is the direct killing of the unborn child. A surgery that intends to help save the woman (but indirectly kills the child) never goes by the name abortion. And it’s not just semantics; it all has to do with direct actions.


#5

Given the above can we then say it would be morally justified to shoot down the plane because our intention is to stop the terrorists from killing the people in the building and not to kill the innocent people, such that the innocent people are indirectly killed? Or would we say we can not shoot down the plane because the end does not justify the means?


#6

The encyclopedia I quoted above seems to be saying an ectopic pregnancy is not morally justified to remove the fetus before it can survive, ie. 6 months.


#7

The principle here is that one can never directly attack innocent human life. To do so is an evil. In no case is it justified, EVER, unless God Himself provides the direction (such as with Abraham and Isaac).

In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, the organ may be removed. The human life is injured and likely destroyed as a result, but it was not directly attacked.

Our ethics is based on what our roles as human beings are, not on what results we get from what we do. Who was it who counseled the people that it was better for one man to die than for there to be an uprising?

It is a pretty classic example of the principle of double-effect. There is a lot of Catholic literature on problematic pregnancies.

The plane example is similar.


#8

Direct abortion is never justified. Saying you need to have an abortion to save your life is like the equivalent of this: You, and another person are stranded in the middle of an ocean on a raft, it can’t float if both of you are on it at the same time, so you throw other the person off (who by the way, can’t swim), essentially killing him. The action was not justified, the action was killing an innocent human being.


#9

In no case is it justified, EVER, unless God Himself provides the direction (such as with Abraham and Isaac).

That was before the Ten Commandments, before God’s people knew about “thou shalt not kill”. This is how we are to understand this passage: forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=663877


#10

I hear what you are saying and I have heard this example before. For instance I heard in the case where the fertiized egg gets stuck in the fallopian tube that it would be morally justified by the principle of double effect to cut out a peice of the fallopian tube, remove it from the body, and allowing the fertilized egg to continue to die of natural causes which it would have done inside the womb at any rate. I understand that and it makes sense.

However what do you make of this when the Catholic Encyclopedia says this from above. It seems to contradict:

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.

It would seem to be able to reconcile this apparent contradiction is that it would not be permissible to remove the fertilized egg directly from the fallopian tube resulting in its death. But it would be permissible to remove the tube itself which contains the fertilized egg. So while it seems almost to be the same it is not because you have done nothing to decrease the chances of the fertilized eggs survival by cutting out the tube and have not directly harmed it.


#11

That was before the Ten Commandments, before God’s people knew about “thou shalt not kill”. This is how we are to understand this passage

That’s absurd on many levels.

It would seem to be able to reconcile this apparent contradiction is that it would not be permissible to remove the fertilized egg directly from the fallopian tube resulting in its death. But it would be permissible to remove the tube itself which contains the fertilized egg. So while it seems almost to be the same it is not because you have done nothing to decrease the chances of the fertilized eggs survival by cutting out the tube and have not directly harmed it.

Looks like you got it. Just as well, there’s been a lot of development of this discussion since 1902 (not to mention biology).


#12

I have found this article that gives an example of an operation that would be morally justified that indirectly kills the fetus using the principle of double effect

catholic.com/magazine/articles/abortion-and-double-effect

It basically states that you can never be morally justified to do an evil so that good can result. But, you can be justified to do a good so that a good can result even if an evil would result or is a possibility. As long as the good outweighs the evil.


#13

This is correct (the first part of your statement). A fighter jet can shoot down a passenger plane if its rogue pilot is intending to use it as a missile to attack a skyscraper. The fighter jet is intending to take out a missile (the plane), and the indirect action is that there are unfortunately some innocent people on the plane who will die. But the fighter pilot is not directly intending to kill them.

A worthwhile thought experiment for you might be the “trolley problem.” Look that up on the web sometime (but make sure you read authentic Catholic responses, because there are some goofy people out there who twist things to justify immoral actions).


#14

The more interesting conversation is about “craniotomies.” It just shows how important it is to understand the “object” of a moral act. There is a lot of confusion out there, even among good thinkers.


#15

Is this thread a fruit of reflection on the GOP debate? Now THERE was an example of not understanding how moral agency works. I remember that language of “self-defense” when discussing abortion. Seriously cutting mental corners.


#16

If we apply lifeboat ethics to abortion, than wouldn’t it follow that the only rational thing would be to abort in such a case, since the rational thing to do is to preserve one’s own life?

Maimonides applied the law of the pursuer to abortion in cases where the pregnancy threatened the mother’s life; the fetus was seen as one pursuing the mother’s life.


#17

One is more generally bound to take care of one’s own life than another’s, but if the object remains intrinsically evil then it is always a bad act. Sometimes one is bound to relinquish his or her life.

The fetus is not a moral agent. It can’t be a pursuer. I have been intending for a long time to write an article on the nature of threats and how their nature determines the scope of our response, with an eye precisely to ending the craniotomy discussion once and for all.


#18

No. it was from thinking about another thread on moral relativism and cases that justify killing like self defense or shooting down airplanes.


#19

Well yes, it can not be considered as an agressor. You and I both agree it is human. However, someone prochoice might consider it as more of a biological threat like a cancer.
Cancer has no agression but simply reproduces according to its nature.

Now what about a case where the plane has no hijacker but something goes technically wrong and it is on a collision course that can not be avoided. Say for instance the autopilot is set to collide with a bulding by accident but the pilot has become incapacitated. Would it still be justified to shoot down the plane? Or does there have to be an aggressor (moral agent) to justify it? To simplify things lets say the pilot is the only person on board and there is no one else to fly the plane.

Forgetting about the fact that the pilot qualifies for a Darwin award, there are cameras that reveal to ground that he is incapacitated. Perhaps with some medical emergency. (I should be a Hollywood film writer. Lol) And ground has projected his flight path into the building.


#20

Man, I would not want to be in charge of deciding who gets into the lifeboat.


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