Sunday, March 8, 2009

Abortion: An ethically challenging case.

As many of you probably know the mother of a nine year old girl who had an abortion, and the doctor who performed the abortion, were excommunicated by the Archbishop of Brazil. This excommunication is fully supported by the Vatican.

The girl was impregnated by her stepfather who raped her. Because of her age no one suspected she was pregnant until she was four months along and started to become very ill.

The considered medical opinion was (a) pregnancy would be too much for a nine year old and (b) her hips were too underdeveloped to allow for her safety if she were to give birth (the church's position is that she could have had a Cesarean section, but that would be very dangerous also on a nine year old).

I will not ask the question of whether the Catholic Church should have excommunicated the mother and the doctor in this case. That is a theological and moral issue for the Church to work out. I am not a Catholic and therefore shall here have nothing to say about it.

But I do want to ask about the broader ethical issues involved. I hold a pretty standard liberal position on abortion. I do not think that a fetus - at least not during the first 6 months - is a person and therefore I do not believe abortion before the third trimester (after is another matter) is murder. I therefore support the legal option of abortion during the first two trimesters.

Despite this, a part of me agrees with the pro-life stance. I am not comfortable with abortions and agree that the fewer there are the better. And I completely understand where those who are pro-life are coming from and respect their position.

It seems to me, however, that in the case of this nine year old girl we have strong ethical reasons to support the option of abortion. First, this girl would have to deal with being a mother at nine. Second, she had been raped by her stepfather - that is a lot of trauma for her to deal with. Third, there was good medical reason to believe that her health - and probably the health of the babies (she was carrying twins) was in grave danger.

Can we ethically maintain that a nine year old victim of rape and incest be forced to carry twins to term and then deliver them, when the process would possibly be fatal and/or crippling to her?

I suppose much of this turns on the question of whether the four month old twins are persons. According to our best science the Cerebral cortex is not sufficiently developed to support consciousness and distinctly human thinking until the sixth or seventh month. If, therefore science is our guide, we must say that these twins are not persons.

However, the twins are potential persons, and in a strong and non-trivial sense. These twins have unique genetic codes and are developing into actual persons quite rapidly and will be persons quite soon. Nevertheless, I think it quite reasonable to hold that the rights of an actual person outweigh those of a potential person, and that therefore the real dangers to the nine year old mother take precedence in this case.

The remaining possibility of course is the position the Catholic church takes: The soul and body are fused by God at conception, so it is against God's law to take the life a fetus at any time for any reason.

I do not believe this view myself. In fact, I don't accept the traditional account of the soul. But never mind that. If we do not take this position, what grounds then do we have for saying that this abortion was unethical? On the other hand, if we do take the Catholic Position, do we have any grounds for saying the abortion is ethical? In other words, could one consistently maintain that soul and body are infused at conception but that nonetheless in extreme cases - like this one - abortions are, though regrettable, permissible?


  1. Wow Matt, well put. I am a person who thinks that abortion shouldn't be legal period, regardless of what trimester you are on, yet permissible in instances of trauma or rape such as the case of this girl in Brazil. If a girl were to have an abortion, just because, it is not reason. But dude, stepfather comes in, rapes the girl (9yrs old, right?), impragnated her (did you say twins?) that's horrible. This child (or anybody else in similar circumstances) should have the option of an abortion, which in this case was the responsability of the child's mother. If I was her mother, I would have done the same. I was once Catholic and I do not agree with their decision either. I feel the Catholic church is trying to punish these people because they fail to see the reasons as you listed them above. They are blinded by politics rather than guided by their followers and their sufferings.

  2. Matt, two questions come to mind. Did the step father get excommunicated? If not, if he still gets to end up in heaven eventually ( after purgatory), why hasn't he been dispatched to there already? And why hasn't he been castrated or had a complete dickotomy,without benefit of anathesia?

  3. Victor I am inclined to agree with you that this case is strongly in favor of letting the mother choose an abortion. The rape and incest of a nine year old is pretty dramatic.

    I have much sympathy with the pro-life position, but it really seems to me that in some cases we must allow a choice. This case is one of those. Another I can think of is what happened to a relative of mine. She was 1 month pregnant when she was diagnosed with an anorism in her spleen. The Doctor looked it up and in every single case of this condition - literally 100% - if the woman tried to have the child, both she and the baby died. Every case. My relative, after much soul searching, had the abortion.

    It seems hard to say she had a choice: abort the baby or you die and the baby dies any way!

    There are such tragic conflicts. Of course I don't intend to tell the Catholic church what it must believe or what it should do, that is up to the Church. But ethically I think much differently than they do, at least in such "extreme cases."

    Thanks for your comment.

  4. To My Dad's comment: As far as I know the Stepfather has not been excommunicated. I do not know if the church would or will excommunicate him for this heinous act. Since the church has excommunicated the mother and the doctor for the abortion, it seems that the church does excommunicate for moral crimes - at least if they are deemed grave enough.

    Personally, I would think the stepfather was a much more foul and immoral person than the mother or the doctor, on any conceivable ethics.

    But the Church may view the matter differetly; perhaps holding that nothing is worse than taking an innocent human life.

    I'm not sure on that. Of course, I simply cannot believe that a man who rapes his nine year old stepdaugher is anything other than a moral monster. which I'm sure the church would also hold. And equally I cannot see a mother and doctor who want to erase the shame and minimize the psychological trauma on this poor girl - not to mention prevent a serious danger to her life and health - as grossly immoral villians. But apparently the Catholic Church thinks very differntly than I do on this part of the case.

  5. This is not a difficult question. It is a simple political question, a simple theological question, and a simple ethical question.

    First, the theological question. It is clear that performing an abortion or assisting in an abortion is something that the church should excommunicate someone for, based on tradition and the catechism.

    Second, the ethical question. There are good reasons to support the Catholic stance that one should treat even a newly-conceived embryo as a person; it is good for our character. Abortion should always be thought of as evil, no matter whether the embryo is *actually* a person.

    Third, the political question. Judith Jarvis Thompson handily showed that even if we grant the fetus personhood, abortion should always be permissible on a natural rights account. Even if the 'fetus' is a 20-year-old nobel prize winner and you signed a contract stating that you wouldn't abort it.

    There ya go. Safe, legal, and rare. And excommunicated.

  6. Tom Wrote:

    "the theological question. It is clear that performing an abortion or assisting in an abortion is something that the church should excommunicate someone for, based on tradition and the catechism."

    As I mention in the post,I leave that decision up to the Catholic Church. I won't tell them who they can and can't excommunicate.

    However, The tradition is not universal. Both Aquinas and Augustine thought Abortion was not murder until quickening. They accepted this position as followers of Aristotelian Psychology, thinking quickning indicated that the fetus was now ensouled.

    This was also the official position of the Church at the council of Vienne in 1312.

    Of course since the early 19th century or so the church has been unequivocally against any abortion. And I won't quarrel with that.

    I can see value in treating even the newly conceived embryo as a person. That is fine. I recall Thompson's article, and it is exactly that point that I am building on.

    There are tragic conflicts that may make an abortion the lesser of two evils. That is the primary reason I favor keeping it legal (at least during the first trimester and for the life of the mother during the second). The other main reason is that making abortion illegal does not stop or even reduce the number of abortions; it only makes them more dangerous for the women who undergoe them.

    Pland Parenthood, because of its goal of making people aware of birthcontrol, and its cheap/free distribution of condoms has done a great deal more to lessen abortion than any law criminlizing it has.

    Of course, The Catholic Church also opposes artificial birth control, so they would not embrace Planed Parenthood for that reason.


Comments from many different points of view are welcome. But I will not publish any comments that are hateful, insulting, or filled with profanity. I welcome and encourage dialogue and disagreement but will not publish any hate speech.