The St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix recently had its official relationship with the Catholic Church revoked.  The local bishop, Thomas Olmsted, objected to the hospital having performed an abortion to save the life of a mother of four (besides the fetus).   He initially excommunicated the nun that approved the procedure, but when the hospital refused to fire her, he simply ended the church’s relationship with the entire hospital. 

 This a curious ethic.  Assuming that the wellspring of Catholic disapproval of all forms of contraception, especially including abortion, is belief in the sanctity of life, how is the sanctity of one life relative to another so easily resolved?  Knee-jerk, dogmatic ethics (i.e., opposition to abortion, no matter the reason) might make ethical decisions appear simple and clear, but that’s about all.  Things can get very complicated, even in applying a value as simple as the belief that human life is sacred and should be protected.  But things weren’t all that complicated here. 

This poor mother would have died, and her fetus with her, had her pregnancy been brought to term.  That’s  what pregnancy can sometimes do to a woman and her baby.  Though modern medicine has made the process of growing a massive tumor in the lower abdomen and then excreting it through the vaginal canal a touch less risky than it once was, growing things inside one’s body is still fraught with danger, both for the grower and the growee.   There arises an ethical dilemma of titanic proportions when the growing fetus threatens the mother in such a way that the fetus can only be saved by the mother’s death, and vice versa.  That wasn’t the case here.  The mother and fetus would have both died had nothing been done.  Since the fetus would have died no matter what, the only question that remained was whether the mother could be saved.  If so, then save her.  Simple as that.  Bishop Olmsted is basically saying that the church’s ethics require that the mother die along with her fetus.   How does that promote the idea and belief that human life is sacred?  Without the abortion, two humans die.  With it, one lives.  Can’t the Bishop do math?

The Bishop’s actions reveal that the Church’s stand against abortion is animated more by political, rather than spiritual, concerns.  Which is unfortunate.  Compassion of the type Christ taught and lived requires flexibility in ethics, but dogma, especially of the political variety, yields to no exigent circumstance. 

I personally abhor the idea of abortion as a post hoc contraception strategy. According to National Right to Life statistics, in the 38 years since Roe v. Wade, roughly 50 million abortions have been performed in the US.   My guess is that the vast majority of them had nothing to do with saving the mother’s life.  And that’s tragic.  For the aborted fetuses, but also for the women.  Especially when there are so many other forms of much cheaper (and profoundly less dangerous) contraception readily and legally available.  Why would a sexually-active woman not protect herself from pregnancy if she didn’t want to have a child?   Are we to believe that women, even young women, are too stupid to know what may result from sexual intercourse?  Is that a road feminists really wish to travel, even today, where the iPhone/iPod/iPad generation has access to pretty much any information they wish?   Killing a fetus as if it’s a cancer is an abomination when it’s done only because a woman was too inconvenienced during lovemaking to take appropriate precautions.   And don’t even begin to try and make the argument that the man is as responsible as the woman.  No.  The body that will carry the child is the woman’s.  She has a vested interest in preventing an unwanted pregnancy.  She decides whether and when to have sex.   The responsibility to prevent an unwanted pregnancy comes with her right to have sex when she pleases, and preventing an unwanted pregnancy, either through abstention or properly-used contraception, is far preferable, or should be, than aborting one.   Still, I’d take 49 million unnecessary abortions if the cost were losing a million that saved  the life of the mother.  But there should be (and as a practical matter, is) a great stigma attached to abortions of convenience.   It is an abhorrent way for a woman to deal with the responsibilities that come with the power to create life.

But there are times and circumstances when an abortion is ethically sound (e.g., rape, or the situation described above), which makes the Catholic Church’s dogmatic stand indefensible.  For that matter, if their ethic is valuing human life, then why has the Church silently acquiesced to the killing, maiming and torture of two millenia of war since its founding, and even today, has no clear ethic on the matter?  Why doesn’t the Catholic Church oppose capital punishment as an insult to the sacrament of life?  I have great difficulty mustering any respect for an organization that clothes its political dogma in religion, but especially one that does so inconsistently.   Either human life is sacred or it isn’t.   Killing to avenge killing, even when the correct killer can be conclusively identified, hardly brings the murder victim back to life.  War, as much as abortion, denies life to a great many souls.  To be sure, there are ethical conundrums to war.  Every human has the ethical right to kill another in defense of their own life.  And sometimes that’s what war is.  But too often, it is only a political exercise in power.  Where’s the Catholic Church on Iraq?  Is what we’ve done there ethically justifiable as self-defense?  Do the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis not count as highly in their ethic as aborted fetuses? 

I don’t believe the Supreme Court helped much in its finding in Roe v. Wade that there exists a penumbra of rights contained within the right to privacy that protected a woman’s right to have an abortion.  I’m not sure that the issue is even reachable as a legal principle, but since the Court created a right from the edge of the shadow (that’s what a penumbra is) of other rights, the Catholic Church, amongst others, was pushed into a corner, and now feels it must dogmatically oppose every last abortion.  I think the better answer would have been to allow the separate states to fashion their own abortion rules, according to the ethics of their citizens. 

Personally, I think Bill Clinton was right when he proclaimed that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare”.  It makes for a messy, but compassionate, ethic, but is about the best that can be hoped for, and is an ethic surely more Christ-like than the rigid stance of the Catholic Church.

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