The Movie "The Cardinal" and Abortion

I just was watching the movie “The Cardinal” made in 1963 that traces the life of a priest from the beginning of his ordination on. It’s set in the early 20th Century. There’s a part in the movie when the priest’s sister is in labor and has some pelvic issues that make it impossible for her to give birth and also another medical issue that makes it impossible for a C-Section without killing the mother (the priest’s sister).

I was always under the impression that to save the life of the mother a medical treatment that doesn’t have the intent to kill the child, but the intent to save the mother with the death of the child as an unfortunate consequence was permissible. In the movie, the priest refuses to give the doctor permission to abort the baby to save the life of the mother. This part I get. Maybe it’s just because it was set early in the 20th century and they didn’t have the proper technology at that point, but if there were another procedure that would save the priest’s sister’s life that had the double effect of killing the baby, he would have been morally permissible to ok the procedure, correct?

In any case, it caused a stir in my household as the family was watching the movie and I was a bit confused on how to best explain the situation, obviously I did not live in the early 20th century so I wasn’t sure what was available at the time and if that had any effect on the fact that the priest was forced to choose the life of his sister’s child over the life of his sister.

Whats the correct moral act in this scenario? Something didn’t seem right to me in the way the scenario played out in the movie.

As a fun side fact of trivia, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger served as a technical advisor to this movie in 1963, so that also plays a role in my confusion as to everything, because he certainly would have had something to say about this particular scene as well.

God bless.


I presume that modern c-section techniques and other advances would make the procedure a win-win now. However, set in the early 20th century, things of course were a bit different.

I presume the following options are available:
*]do nothing (both mother and infant die)
*]abort the child (mother lives but child is murdered)
*]perform the c-section (child lives but mother dies unintentionally)

Obviously, abortion is a wrong choice because this is directly taking a life.

If the decision maker chooses to do nothing, it is understandable as the situation is very urgent. However, if it is possible that one or more lives could be spared without violating the Commandments, that would be preferable.

The option to perform the c-section is the preferable one, here. Presumably, they can deliver the baby safely and at least try a best effort to save the mother also. The principle of double effect allows this as they are not trying to kill the mother; it is only an unfortunate effect that she dies.

I have the book, so I looked it up.

Moni, his sister, had been in labor for a few days, unable to deliver because her pelvis was too small. Apparently the doctors was unable to perform a C-section because she had lost so much blood and was in shock. It seems the she was not strong enough to survive the operation, and the doctor refused to perform it.

"Lay explanations were distasteful to Dr Parks. How could one express ibsterical mysteries to the uninitiated? He made the effort. ‘Your sister’s pelvic structure is small, almost infantile. The baby’s head is unusually large. In addition, we are confronted by what is known technically as a “brow presentation.”’ [where the baby’s face is facing upwards intoo the canal]

Stephen thought he had the picture. 'Can’t you perform a Caesarean?"

Do Parks shook his blond head. "Your sister comes too late. She is already in shock from loss of blood. Her heart tones show extreme exhaustion, and the kidney function is gravely impaired. Surgical intervention at this point would be fatal.’

‘What do you advise?’

The resident measured Stephen with blie Anglo-Saxon eyes. ‘Termination of labor by means of a craniotomy.’ [even then they used euphemisms!]

‘But that’s–murder!’ said Stephen.

Nettlement rasped Dr Parks’ voice. ‘I am not Catholic. I am under no obligation to to take your view of the matter, Father. I realize the frightful choice you must make. But unless you give me permission to destroy the fetus, nothing can save your sister. It’s her life agInst that of an unborn child.’" [published in 1950.]

The book goes on, Fr Fermoe is gravely tempted but overcomes the temptation, then goes to gove his sister the Last Rites. She dies and the doctor comes to rescue the baby, a girl who lives.

Oops, major typos in my post and too late to edit :o

ibstetrical is obsterical, and Fermoe is Fermoyle. There are probably more, bit those are the ones I thought would be confusing.

I had watched the movie as a teen in 1963, and recorded it again this week. I think Fr. Ratzinger was a technical advisor if they had a question, but that in no way means he necessarily approved the theology referred to.
This movie was made with major Hollywood stars and production values, shown as a regular Hollywood movie, not especially a religious movie. Sadly it would never be made today, unless as some kind of religious special only on EWTN. Catholics are failing to penetrate the media with Christian values, and the media is overwelmingly hostile to Catholicism, especially as a vocation to the priesthood. We have our work cut out for us, to try to restore the culture in whatever way each of us can. American culture in 2013 is not normal or healthy.

Is there any ruling by the Church today if a similar situation occurs?
Would there be a ruling to sacrifice the mother’s life to save the child?
Would it be going against the Church if a doctor chose to save the mother at the expense of the child’s life when all other possible interventions have failed?
Please be clear about this; no cliches please


This is an old thread. You will likely get better response by starting a new one. If you search the forums for “double effect”, you will find that the issue has been discussed many times.

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