I have a question regarding a debate I've been having online about abortion and was wondering if you could help me. The discussion turned at one point to the example of the little girl in Brazil which led to the general question about exceptions for saving the life of the mother. I did my best to explain the principle of double-effect (which even to me sounds a little like splitting hairs, but it does make sense, so onward) and used the example of ectopic pregnancy/ salpingectomy, but I think I got back up against a wall when posed with the scenario of when the life of the mother is in imminent danger and the baby must come out, even if it is unable to survive outside the womb. It seems to me that this is morally reasonable (if the mother dies, both die; but if at least one can be saved, we would have the duty to do so), but I couldn't help but wonder. If the baby must be removed with the intention of saving the mother, isn't the direct action still an abortion? The duty to save the life is there, I believe, but how do we explain this without undermining the definition of a direct, intentional abortion being morally forbidden? In other words, don't both aspects have to be negated for double-effect? And how do I explain this? Please help!
The principle is that no harm may be directly done to the innocent life. The position of the Church is that there are no exceptions for direct abortion, even in the case where the mother's life is in danger. Indirect abortion is permitted only when there is a proportionate reason, namely, when the life of the mother is in danger. Indirect abortion would include such things as the removal of the womb with the child intact in the case of uterine cancer, or the "salpingectomy" (which I presume is the sectioning of the fallopian tube with the embryo in it) in the case of an ectopic pregnancy. Based on the principle the "salpingectomy" would be permissible, but a chemical abortion would not, even if it is safer for the woman and if it more likely to leave her fertility intact.
Catholic tradition resolves moral questions on the basis of principle, because morality is, in fact objective. The Church always distinquishes, and rightly so. When people who are testing our moral system pose hard cases, they take the application of the principle to the smallest detail and to the most fine distinctions. Those distinctions may seem to be paper thin, but they are nevertheless consistent with the prinicple. People will take the hard case and test the principle, in the case of direct abortion when the mother might otherwise die, asserting that its application is heartless; however, once the coherence of our moral system is thus compromised, it becomes the pretext for resolving any case that one deems "hard" without a principled solution.
In fact direct abortion is rarely, if ever, necessary to save the life of a mother, and the distinctions that are involved are not as thin as our opponents assert. Those opponents often fail to distinguish between a physical act and a moral act. Since there seems to be little difference, physically, between indirect and direct abortion, especially when the end result is the same, they deem the moral act to be the same in each case; however, morality is not determined by physical factors but by metaphyscal ones: object (nature) of the act; intention and circumstances. In the case of direct abortion, namely, the direct and intentional killing of an innocent child, regardless of its physical similarities with justifiable indirect abortion, the object of the act is intrinsically evil and may never be done.
I hope this helps.
I'm still not quite resolved on this, though. It would seem that we come to the conclusion that it is not permissible to surgically remove the baby, but it is permissible if we take the whole uterus with it. I have to admit, that's a hard pill to swallow.
But I come back to Fr. A's assertion that such cases where direct abortion to save the life of the mother are rarely, if ever, necessary. I believe he is right, but in the case at hand of the girl in Brazil, there are too many unanswered questions and other options for us to be able to answer this question with certainty.
My feeble fence-sitting on such a hard case, as Fr. A called it, is a luxury I can now afford, but I pray for all those faced with such a decision. God grant them guidance, and grant us all mercy.
I'd appreciate any help on this from my fellow pro-lifers.