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Roman Catholicism and abortion access

Cases where Catholic teachings on abortion
may cause, rather than prevent, death. Part 1

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As described in a separate essay, the Roman Catholic Church has banned direct abortion for the the past few centuries.

There are unusual circumstances in which the Church absolutely bans abortion where other faith groups would accept it as the least immoral act. Two cases are examined below where the Catholic Church's "consistent ethic of life" becomes an "ethic of death."

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Situations involving multiple pregnancies:

New methods are now coming into common use to help infertile couples conceive. These involve in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and ovary stimulation techniques. Unfortunately, the procedures are somewhat unpredictable. Sometimes they produce too many simultaneous pregnancies -- four, five or even more fetuses sharing one womb. Often, all of them cannot develop and be born together; they will be born so prematurely that their survival is questionable. They may survive but be seriously disabled. Physicians have introduced the technique of "fetal reduction" to handle such situations. Some of the fetuses are selectively aborted. This reduces the number remaining in the womb to a manageable level, so that all have a good chance of developing fully before being born.

The church considers each fetus to have the status of a full human person. Thus, they are all considered to have full human rights, including the right to life. Fetal reduction is a form of selective abortion. Pope John Paul II stated:

"Therefore by the authority which Christ conferred upon  Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops — who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine ‐I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium" 2

Abortions can never be ethically done, in the eyes of the church, even if it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the woman or the other fetuses. That is because it would violate the church's prime directive in such cases:

"It is never licit to do evil, even in view of attaining a good...even if due to human limitations we are sometimes forced to only helplessly witness the death of innocent creatures, it can never by morally licit to willfully provoke death." 3

Thus fetal reduction is condemned by the Church even though it would permit some fetuses to be survive.

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AZ: A situation involving the imminent death of the mother:

During 2009, a pregnant woman was critically ill with pulmonary hypertension, and expected to die shortly in St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, AZ -- a Roman Catholic facility. She was in her 11th week of pregnancy, near the end of the first trimester. Her embryo had recently become a fetus. There was no real hope that she could survive unless she had an abortion. The hospital medical and ethical staff had two options:

  1. To do nothing other than giving her comfort care and watch her and her fetus die, while hoping/praying for a miracle, or

  2. To perform an abortion, kill the fetus, and save the woman's life.

Canon law recognizes both the fetus and the mother as full human persons. It also forbids directly performing an evil deed -- like an abortion -- in order to cause a good outcome -- like saving the woman's life. Canon law requires that option 1 be taken with the death of both mother and fetus.

Other ethical systems would judge the morality of the decision on the basis of outcome. Option 1 would result in the death of the mother and fetus -- two dead living entities. Option 2 would result in the death of a fetus -- one dead living entity. The moral choice would generally be #1 to prevent the death of the woman.

The woman, her physicians, and others unanimously agreed that an abortion was the least worse option. The member of the hospital's ethics committee who was on call at the time was Sister Margaret McBride. She concurred with the decision. An emergency abortion was performed. The woman survived. 6

When news of the abortion became public, hospital vice president Suzanne Pfister issued a statement on behalf of the hospital, Catholic Healthcare West -- its parent company -- and the Sisters of Mercy:

"At St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, our highly-skilled clinical professionals face life and death decisions every day. Those decisions are guided by our values of dignity, justice and respect, and the belief that all life is sacred."

"We have always adhered to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services as we carry out our healing ministry and we continue to abide by them. As the preamble to the Directives notes, 'While providing standards and guidance, the Directives do not cover in detail all the complex issues that confront Catholic health care today."

"In those instances where the Directives do not explicitly address a clinical situation -- such as when a pregnancy threatens a woman's life -- an Ethics Committee is convened to help our caregivers and their patients make the most life-affirming decision."

"In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother's life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy. This decision was made after consultation with the patient, her family, her physicians, and in consultation with the Ethics Committee, of which Sr. Margaret McBride is a member." 7

Two of the Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs) state that:

  • An abortion -- the directly intended termination of a pregnancy -- is not permitted under any circumstances, even to save the life of a woman.

  • "Operations, treatments and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted . . . even if they will result in the death of the unborn child."

Apparently, the medical personnel at this hospital decided that the second directive gave them sufficient wiggle room to save the woman's life even though the first directive is a blanket prohibition of abortion. Other North American hospitals affiliated with the Catholic Church would have elected to let both woman and fetus die.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead, head of the Phoenix Diocese, learned about the case after the abortion had been performed and the life of the mother was saved. He was critical of the decision by the hospital personnel because Catholic canon law required the medical staff to allow the woman to die. This of course would result in the death of the fetus as well. Bishop Olmstead issued a statement saying:

I am gravely concerned by the fact that an abortion was performed several months ago in a Catholic hospital in this Diocese. I am further concerned by the hospital's statement that the termination of a human life was necessary to treat the mother's underlying medical condition.

An unborn child is not a disease. While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother's life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means.

Every Catholic institution is obliged to defend human life at all its stages; from conception to natural death. This obligation is also placed upon every Catholic individual. If a Catholic formally cooperates in the procurement of an abortion, they are automatically excommunicated by that action. The Catholic Church will continue to defend life and proclaim the evil of abortion without compromise, and must act to correct even her own members if they fail in this duty.

We always must remember that when a difficult medical situation involves a pregnant woman, there are two patients in need of treatment and care; not merely one. The unborn child's life is just as sacred as the mother's life, and neither life can be preferred over the other. A woman is rightly called 'mother' upon the moment of conception and throughout her entire pregnancy is considered to be 'with child.'

The direct killing of an unborn child is always immoral, no matter the circumstances, and it cannot be permitted in any institution that claims to be authentically Catholic.

As our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, solemnly taught in his encyclical 'The Gospel of Life,' a 'direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being' (The Gospel of Life #62).

The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Institutions (ERDs) are very clear on this issue: 'Catholic health care ministry witnesses to the sanctity of life from the moment of conception until death. The Church's defense of life encompasses the unborn and the care of women and their children during and after pregnancy.' (ERD, Part Four, Introduction) The ERDs further state that 'Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted. Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion. ... Catholic health care institutions are not to provide abortion services, even based upon the principle of material cooperation. In this context, Catholic health care institutions need to be concerned about the danger of scandal in any association with abortion providers.'" (ERD 45)

Bishop Olmsted, by virtue of his office, is the authoritative voice on faith and morals in the Diocese of Phoenix. This includes every official Catholic institution of the Diocese. 7

From the wording of Bishop Olmstead's letter, one might conclude that he was not familiar with all the details of the case. The abortion was not performed because the life of the mother was "preferred" over the fetus' life. The fetus would die in any case. However, an abortion at least saved the life of the woman and prevented the massive disruption that her death would have caused to her husband and existing children.

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This topic continues in Part 2

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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. Francis Cardinal Arinze, "In defense of human life," Holy Apostles College & Seminary, 2010-OCT-12, at:
  2. Pontifical Council for the Family, "Declaration on fetal reduction in cases of multiple pregnancies," 2000-JUL-12, at:
  3. Michael Clancy, "Nun at St. Joseph's Hospital rebuked over abortion to save woman," Arizona Republic, 2010-MAY-19, at:
  4. "Phoenix Catholic hospital defends abortion that took place there; bishop warns of excommunication," Catholic World News, 2010-MAY-17, 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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