A Critical Distinction
By Tom Grenchik
July 9, 2010
On June 23, 2010, the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine released a clarification entitled: The Distinction between Direct Abortion and Legitimate Medical Procedures. Since most folks don’t read every new posting on the vast USCCB web-site, this helpful statement could be overlooked.
The statement notes that “On November 5, 2009, medical personnel at the St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, performed a procedure that caused the death of an unborn child. Most Reverend Thomas Olmsted, the Bishop of Phoenix, has judged that this procedure was in fact a direct abortion and so morally wrong….”
When Bishop Olmsted spoke, many a commentator became a self-appointed expert on the Church’s moral teaching overnight. The national media certainly caused confusion among Catholics and the general public as to what the Church teaches regarding illegitimate and legitimate medical procedures for addressing the risk to a mother’s health or even life during a pregnancy.
The Committee on Doctrine reminded us that “…. abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted… One may never directly kill an innocent human being, no matter what the reason… By contrast, in some situations, it may be permissible to perform a medical procedure on a pregnant woman that directly treats a serious health problem but that also has a secondary effect that leads to the death of the developing child… The difference can be seen in two different scenarios in which the unborn child is not yet old enough to survive outside the womb.”
“In the first scenario, a pregnant woman is experiencing problems with one or more of her organs, apparently as a result of the added burden of pregnancy. The doctor recommends an abortion to protect the health of the woman… The surgery directly targets the life of the unborn child. It is the surgical instrument in the hands of the doctor that causes the child's death. The surgery does not directly address the health problem of the woman, for example, by repairing the organ that is malfunctioning… The abortion is the means by which a reduced strain upon the organ or organs is achieved. As the Church has said many times, direct abortion is never permissible because a good end cannot justify an evil means....”
“In the second scenario, a pregnant woman develops cancer in her uterus. The doctor recommends surgery to remove the cancerous uterus as the only way to prevent the spread of the cancer… The woman's health benefits directly from the surgery, because of the removal of the cancerous organ. The surgery does not directly target the life of the unborn child. The child will not be able to live long after the uterus is removed from the woman's body, but the death of the child is an unintended and unavoidable side effect and not the aim of the surgery. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with surgery to remove a malfunctioning organ. It is morally justified when the continued presence of the organ causes problems for the rest of the body.”
“Surgery to terminate the life of an innocent person, however, is intrinsically wrong… Nothing, therefore, can justify a direct abortion. No circumstance, no purpose, no law
whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.”
May the Law of God, proclaimed by our Church and through our bishops, inspire each of us to work for the protection of every human person, mother and child alike.
To read the entire statement, go to:
Tom Grenchik is Executive Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Go to www.usccb.org/prolife to learn more about the bishops’ pro-life activities.