Q. A woman who gave birth through surgery within the prior year becomes pregnant, contrary to her doctors’ instructions because of the high risk of serious complications. Under this circumstance, is abortion allowed by the Church?
A. This is a real-life question in the sense that it is certainly something that people encounter and something that brings with it serious questions. Thanks for asking.
We start by acknowledging the fear and anxiety that are naturally present when a mother is pregnant with a high-risk pregnancy. And, in your scenario, it is clear that she is already a mother, giving birth less than a year ago. Now she is pregnant again, and the doctors make the medical assessment that her life is at risk with this new pregnancy. It is quite understandable that this situation would pose much legitimate fear and concern to this mother and her family.
To understand this question properly, we have to see clearly what is at stake. First, we have the life of the mother. Her life, no doubt, is of greatest value and everything must be done so as to keep her healthy. We also have to consider a second essential fact. By “essential” we mean that this second fact cannot be ignored. And that fact is that we are talking about two lives, not just one.
Once pregnancy takes place, new human life is present. This means that a new child is created by God and is living in the womb of the mother. Though this is an obvious fact, it is often not fully considered when asking this question. So, as hard as it might be to look at it this way, the following question must also be asked: “Whose life is more important? That of the mother? Or that of the newly conceived child?” Truth be told, there is no answer to that question because neither is more important than the other. Each life is absolutely sacred and of infinite value.
Some have suggested that the mother’s life is more important than the newly conceived child because the mother is a mother already and another child is dependent upon her. Even though it is true that her responsibilities in life are obviously greater, since a child in the womb has no responsibilities, it would be a mistake to equate responsibility with value. Life has infinite value simply because it is life.
So how do we answer the question? The answer is that abortion is always wrong. The goal must be to do all that is possible to help the mother bring that child to term. With that said, there are some options. For example, an early delivery could take place, even if it poses a certain risk to the child. Care must be taken so that the risk is not too great, but some risk is reasonable.
This is especially true when it is concluded that if the mother were to die, the child would die also. In that case, when a doctor determines that the risk to both mother and child is so great that it is almost inevitable, an early delivery would be almost necessitated, even if there is great risk to the child. In this case, the intention is certainly not abortion; the intention and goal is to save the life of both the mother and the child.
One specific situation to consider is a tubal pregnancy. This is when a child is conceived and attaches to the Fallopian tube rather than to the uterine wall. In this case, the medical outcome is quite certain. The child will not survive, and the mother will most likely die of internal bleeding. This is one case in which many moral theologians have applied a moral principle called “the principle of double effect.” “Double effect” means that one thing is intended and another is not. Specifically, many have argued that it is permissible to remove the portion of the Fallopian tube that is either ruptured or soon to be ruptured, even though this will also remove the human embryo. Direct abortion is not the intention in this case.
If you or someone you know finds herself in this situation, please do contact your parish priest for his advice. Each case will bring with it unique circumstances, so it is essential to evaluate your situation and all the factors involved.