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Roman Catholicism and abortion access

Possible exceptions to the ban on
abortion by the Roman Catholic Church

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As described in a separate essay, the Roman Catholic Church has banned direct abortion during the past few centuries. However, there are unusual circumstances in which the Church may find abortion to be permissible today.

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Exceptions to the blanket rule that forbids most abortions:

The Church bans abortions which "directly" cause the death of a fetus. However, there are certain medical procedures that a pregnant woman can undergo which, indirectly, result in the death of the embryo or fetus. Under some circumstances, the church regards these as a moral choice. These involve an ethical principle called "double effect." This is where an action that is directly undertaken for a moral reason has an unintended, unavoidable, second, indirect, and negative, effect. Perhaps the most common example is the administering a narcotic to ease the pain of a terminally-ill cancer patient. The medication will have the desired effect of alleviating pain. However, it may also has the side effect of hastening death.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I, an action involving a double effect may possibly be morally acceptable if all of the following four conditions are met:

bullet That the negative effects are not sought, and all reasonable efforts are made to avoid them.
bullet That the direct effect is positive.
bullet That the negative effect is not made a means to obtain the positive effect.
bullet That the positive effect is at least as important as the negative effect. 4

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We have found three relatively unusual examples in the literature involving the morality of killing an embryo or fetus:

bullet Ectopic Pregnancy: In a normal conception, sperm fertilizes an ovum in one of the woman's two fallopian tubes (a.k.a. oviducts). The fertilized ovum then moves down the tube and implants itself in the wall of the uterus. In an ectopic pregnancy, the embryo becomes lodged in the duct. Initially, there is no problem. However, as the embryo grows, it will become too large to be accommodated by the duct. The latter ruptures. Unless the woman obtains immediate medical care, she will inevitably die of an internal hemorrhage. Ectopic pregnancies happen in about 1 per 4,000 pregnancies, and about 1 per 65 in-vitro fertilization pregnancies.

There are two  medical procedures to avoid the death of the woman. Both will result in life for the woman and death for the embryo. However, either one or none of the procedures is allowable according to various Catholic sources:
bullet One is to administer a medication that kills the embryo and leaves the fallopian tube intact;
bullet The other is a surgical procedure. The physician cuts the fallopian tube, removes the section containing the developing embryo, and then stops the bleeding. The embryo inevitably dies due to a sudden termination in the woman's life support services.
We have found four interpretation of church law in such a case:
bullet According to an article in Touchstone Magazine, the church has no objection to the surgical procedure. That is because the woman's life was saved by the removal of the oviduct; it was not directly saved by the death of the fetus. The fetal death was unintended  and was not a goal of the procedure. 1
bullet Author Gerald Kelly also comments on the surgical procedure:
"there is...a pathological condition in the mother which is distinct from the mere fact that the fetus is present, (and) this condition exists in an organ which is not indispensable for the mother's life, (and) the sacrifice of it, when it is in a morbid condition can save her life, the removal of the diseased organ is morally permissible, although the death of the fetus ensues, because the operation is directed, not against the fetus but against the pathological condition of the mother.  It is not the case of attaining a good effect by means of the bad, because the mother's life is saved, not by the death of the fetus, but by the removal of the pathological condition."

The fetal death is an indirect effect of saving the woman's life.

bullet However, the Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 1, quotes a decision of the Tribunal of the Holy Office on 1902-MAR-20. The Tribunal's answer 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".
Removal of the fetus from the oviduct would directly result in the death of the fetus; its life cannot be saved. It would inevitably die. The Catholic Encyclopedia draws an analogy between this operation, and plunging an adult into a medium (e.g. water) and holding him there until he dies.

The Catholic Encyclopedia has a Nihil Obstat, dated 1907-MAY-1 by Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor, and an Imprimatur by John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York. We would assume that their ruling would be valid. Catholic physicians would be expected to stand idly by and allow the woman to hemorrhage to death, even though they could save her life.


Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life answered a question presented by a medical professional. He commented first on the medication procedure, and second on the surgical procedure:

"... a direct abortion ... is never permissible for any reason. 'Direct' means that the destruction of the child is willed as the end or the means to another end. Sometimes ectopic pregnancies are handled this way, killing the child but leaving the tube intact. Such an action is morally wrong."

"However, if what is done is that the damaged portion of the tube is removed because of the threat it poses to the mother, that is not a direct abortion, even if the child dies. What is done is the same thing that would be done if the tube were damaged from some other cause. The mother is not saved by the death of the child but by the removal of the tube. Because the death of the child in this case is a side effect which is not intended, and because the saving of the mother's life is not brought about by the death of the child, such a removal of the damaged portion of the tube is morally permissible. The ethical rule that applies here is called the Principle of the Double Effect." 5

Non-catholic moral systems give considerable weight to the positive and negative results from an act. In this case, both the medication and surgical procedures would result in a dead embryo and a living woman. However, the surgical procedure would negatively affect the fertility of the mother, whereas the medication route would leave her fertility intact. Also, the surgical method would expose the woman to the danger of infection and surgical mishaps that could conceivably threaten her life. The medication option would be preferred. There are some Catholic theologians who have begun to argue in favor of considering the results of an action when assessing its morality. However, they are currently in the minority.

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bullet Uterine Cancer: Very rarely, a pregnant woman is diagnosed with cancer of the uterus. From a moral standpoint, this situation is similar to the previous example. However, in this case, the fetus would not be threatening the life of the woman; the cancer would. The normal medical response would be to surgically remove the womb and its contents, including the cancerous growth and the fetus. Unless a late-term fetus was involved, it would inevitably die -- again because of lack of life support. Catholic theologians regard this surgical procedure as moral, because the physician's goal is to save the life of the woman by removing the cancer. The death of the fetus was not the goal of the physician, only the unintended but unavoidable result of the procedure.

bullet Treatment of frozen embryos: Surplus fertilized embryos are generally produced during each in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedure. Multiple ova are fertilized in the laboratory, and allowed to divide. Typically four of the healthiest-looking embryos are then implanted in the woman's uterus. The hope is that one will successfully implant and lead to a normal pregnancy. About twenty surplus embryos are typically left over after the procedure is completed. These are normally either discarded or frozen in liquid Nitrogen for a potential future use:
bullet All of the implanted embryos may die, and a second try may be attempted.
bullet In extremely rare instances, some embryos may be thawed and implanted in another woman. These are sometimes called "snowflake" babies. This is done with only a few dozen women each year. There are hundreds of thousands of frozen embryo in storage.

Cardinal Hume of Westminster, UK, commented on the options for handling these embryos. The church considers these embryos to have been full human persons from the time of fertilization.

His preference would be that IVF procedures be stopped. But even if this were done, there remains the problem of the fate of the existing surplus embryos. Cardinal Hume was aware of two suggestions, "neither of which is without moral difficulties." He notes that the freezing process is an extraordinary means of preserving life. The least worse solution would be to simply expose the embryos to the laboratory environment and allow them to die. An alternative method would be to find other couples who would be willing to 'adopt' the spare embryos by having them implanted in infertile women who wished to become pregnant. He concludes that this would raise "substantial practical difficulties, and presents theological problems. These would have to be examined and resolved, if the Church were to endorse this option." 2

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Related essays in this web site:

Abortion: all aspects; all points of view

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Patrick Reardon, "Abortion & the mother's life," Touchstone Magazine. Online at:
  2. Basil Hume, "Statement made by Cardinal Hume in response to questions raised concerning the treatment of frozen human embryos," Cathnews, 1996-AUG-5.
  3. Pontifical Council for the Family, "Declaration on fetal reduction in cases of multiple pregnancies," 2000-JUL-12, at:
  4. F.J. Connell, "Double Effect, Principle of," in New Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 4, McGraw-Hill, (1967), Pages 1020-1022.
  5. Father Frank Pavone, "Question 6: Questions on Abortion," Priests for Life, at:

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Copyright 1997 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2011-DEC-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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