Would abortion be licit in order to save the mother's life?


I’m sure such situations rarely occur, but it must cause much grief for all involved.


It is never acceptable to deliberately take a child’s life even if the mother’s life depends on it. Now, if the child unfortunately dies as a result of treatment to the mother, then it is not considered an abortion.

For example, a pregnant woman is being treated for severe abdominal injuries after an automobile accident. If the doctor says “This fetus is in the way of me performing the surgery I need to do. I’m going to cut it out.” then this would not be acceptable because the death of the child was intentional. But if a pregnant woman suffers a heart attack and must be defibrillated and the child dies as a result of the shock, then this is “OK” because the death of the child was not intentional.

Now this example is somewhat oversimplified, but it should give you the basic idea.


Direct abortion is NEVER permitted - no exceptions.


You will hear a lot of answers on this, and I warn you up front, I am a moral philosopher, not a scholar of Church teaching.

I do know this, however: the Church allows a procedure that kills an embryo, in the case of ectopic pregnancies. The purpose of this procedure is not to kill the embryo, but to save the mother’s life. The embryo has no chance of surviving an ectopic pregnancy anyway.

(I use the word “kill” above as a value-neutral term; in English, when a person does something that causes another being to die, we say that he “kills” that being. There are cases when killing is justified.)

To me, the case described above is clearly an abortion. But it is a very specific kind of abortion. It is an abortion where:

(1) There is no possible way for the fetus to survive, whether or not the abortion is performed.
(2) The mother will almost certainly die unless the abortion is performed.
(3) The principle of double effect applies. The death of the embryo is a foreseen but unintended consequence, and the good accomplished by the procedure far outweighs the bad.

It seems to me that, if the Church allows abortions in such cases – I know they may not call them abortions, but that is a merely a verbal distinction without a difference – then the Church should allow (though not encourage) abortions in other cases where 1-3 are met.

I’m not sure what teaching is about such cases. I’ve heard a lot of people say that the procedure done to end ectopic pregnancy is not an “abortion”, but no one has given me a principled distinction between this procedure and aborting. If I make a person’s environment unsuitable for life, I kill that person. :shrug:

I hope my post doesn’t offend anyone. I’m just trying to figure out the truth here.


The ectopic pregnancy procedure seems pretty direct to me. Don’t I *directly *kill a person, whether I shoot him with a gun or put poison gas into his prison cell?


Can you explicitly define another case where (1)"…no possible way for the fetus to survive…,"] in particular, but, as you state, (2) and (3) also apply? It is not clear to me that there is another such instance, which is why your expectation that the Church should allow “other” abortions seems to be a semantic but effectively meaningless one.


We have no right to take the life of an innocent human being (in this case the baby)
If the mother dies she dies a natural death.


Why didn’t you come to the other conclusion? Why didn’t you say, “It seems to me that the Church shouldn’t allow the baby in the ectopic pregnancy to be removed from the mother.”? We always seem to want more abortions for less reasons. We never seem to go the other way.


Read this.

ABORTION. In Catholic morality, abortion is either direct (induced) or indirect. Direct abortion is any destruction of the product of human conception, whether before or after implantation in the womb. A direct abortion is one that is intended either as an end in itself or as a means to an end. As a willful attack on unborn human life, no matter what the motive, direct abortion is always a grave objective evil.

Indirect abortion is the foreseen but merely permitted evacuation of a fetus which cannot survive outside the womb. The evacuation is not the intended or directly willed result, but the side effect, of some legitimate procedure. As such it is morally allowable.

The essential sinfulness of direct abortion consists in the homicidal intent to kill innocent life. This factor places the controverted question as to precisely when human life begins, outside the ambit of the moral issue; as it also makes the now commonly held Catholic position that human life begins at conception equally outside the heart of the Church’s teaching about the grave sinfulness of direct abortion.

Abortion was condemned by the Church since apostolic times. The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, composed before A.D. 100, told the faithful “You shall not procure abortion. You shall not destroy a newborn child” (II,2). Direct abortion and infanticide were from the beginning placed on the same level of malice.

Hundreds of ecclesiastical documents from the first century through the present testify to the same moral doctrine, with such nuances as time, place, and circumstances indicated. The Second Vatican Council declared: “Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception,” so that “abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes” (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, IV, 51). Pope Paul VI confirmed this teaching in 1974. “Respect for human life,” he wrote, “is called for from the time that the process of generation begins. From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother. It is rather the life of a new human being with its own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already.” Consequently, “divine law and natural reason exclude all right to the direct killing of an innocent human being” (Declaration on Procured Abortion, III, 12). (Etym. Latin abortivus, born prematurely, abortive; from aboriri, to miscarry.)


By definition, the goal of an abortion is to kill the baby in the womb. If the baby doesn’t die then the abortion wasn’t “successful”. So, abortion actually has nothing to do with “saving the life of the mother”. Having a goal of saving the life of the mother is a totally different goal than abortion. Abortion is not only murder, it is the most heinous kind of murder possible since it is the deliberate murder of a innocent baby in the mother’s womb. What ever happened to the instinct that mothers are supposed to have to protect the life of their baby even if it means sacrificing their own life? It has been reversed so that many women think that their life is more important than the life of their own baby. We live in a sad world. Women who have an abortion have to live the rest of their life knowing that they murdered their own baby. How can that ever be worth it for anything?


I think I understand the moral issues involved here.

But, as a husband, it’s really difficult for me to imagine being in a situation in which I **COULD ** save my wife’s life, but instead I let her die. It’s really, really difficult for me to picture that. I am willing to “die” for her.


This offers some explanation:



I wouldn’t call it “abortion”, but if, without any intent of killing the baby, the baby dies during whatever procedure is being done to save BOTH the mother and the child, then one of the lives which were the object of the doctor’s attempt at saving both lives failed. This is not intentional murder by the doctor or the parent. It is simply an unsuccessful outcome to a lifesaving attempt.

It is never licit to kill another human being with pre-meditation and prejudice. Intentionally killing one to save the other would still be murder; abortion; and would not then be “licit”.

This is my understanding. It really matters…the intention, and the procedure. The main thing is we should never have the purpose in mind of specifically killing the baby OR the mother (for that matter), but rather looking upon both as human lives, and treating them both with dignity and care. The doctor needs to carefully try to save both lives, no matter how difficult one or the other may be to save. It must still be the hopeful and prayerful intent in order for any resulting deaths to be innocent.


No. It is expected that the mother would take the risk of continuing the pregnancy even if it cost her, her life.

I know of two cases like this. One young girl I worked with was found to be pregnant and at the same time to have uterine cancer. Right away the doctors wanted to perform an abortion so she could have chemo. She declined both the abortion and the chemo. She did not want the chemo to harm the fetus, which it most certainly would, if not kill it.

She landed up having a healthy baby boy and the cancer was reversed. The doctors told her that it was the pregnancy that stopped the cancer from continuing and spreading.

In another case there was a couple at a local parish who discovered that the mother to be had spinal cancer. She also refused to terminate the pregnancy and chemo. She knew she would die as a result. She gave birth at 7 months and died shortly after. But her husband and her chose life for the child and she willingly sacrificed her life for that of their child.

The child must be given preference.


Okay - what you wrote is exactly one of the problems “pro-life” people have with debating about abortions with “pro-choice” people - the “life of the mother” situation. “Pro-life” people do not consider such situations as the removal of the damaged Fallopian tubes during an ectopic pregnancy to be an abortion, while “pro-choice” people do. Same thing with the removal of a fetus that has died in the womb (miscarried), but not ejected by the mother. In the case of a mother needing cancer treatment - aborting the baby is out of the question, but there is no moral requirement for the mother refusing chemo, even if the chemo would kill the baby.

Honestly, the problem with the “life of the mother” exception is that many countries (including the US) have interpreted it quite broadly, including suicide threats by the mother. Plus, many people have decided that it should mean “QUALITY of the life of the mother”, which they have termed “health of the mother”. This “Health” of the mother exception has been expanded to include mental health, chronic illnesses such as diabetes, and even the common cold.

However, with regard to your statements (1) through (3), any such procedure in such a case would be considered an “indirect” abortion - in essence, not considered an abortion by the Church because the intent is not to kill the unborn child, but to save the life of the mother. In these cases, it’s “save the life that you can save”. For example, if the mother is in a serious car accident, the doctors are going to try to save her life first (because, in most cases, the baby won’t be able to survive without the mother surviving - though, if the baby is developed enough, they can deliver the baby pre-term in an attempt to save both lives).


It is not about giving preference to the child - it is about not setting out to kill an innocent.

In the first cancer case, would it not be licit to continue the chemo, even if it created risk of death the baby, because it is proper and reasonably necessary medical treatment for the mother?


It is morally licit for the mother to continue chemo. However, it is considered heroic if the mother risks her own life for the life of her unborn child.


I think people struggle with semantics a bit too much. Giving preference to the child would imply, in my opinion, that one should not set out to kill an innocent. As for the mother’s with the cancer, both decided against it so that their respective child was in no danger of being harmed by the chemo. They literally sacrificed themselves for their children. One girl was cured of the cancer, the other woman died as a result but her child survived.

They both understood the risks and willingly took them.


Yes, they were heroic, to use another posters word. But I believe a failure to be heroic is not sinful.


If you choose to deliberately and directly kill the unborn child that is gravely sinful. Extenuating circumstances do not exist that would ever make that acceptable.

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