What Is "Abortion," Anyway?

The Catholic Church condemns "abortion" as a seriously wrongful act. But what, exactly, is the condemned act? Even a cursory examination of our great moral tradition makes it clear that the moral definition of "abortion" does not precisely track the medical definition. To understand the moral definition, you need to go back to its two basic purposes: 1) the recognition that each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, and 2) the articulation of the basic respect due to them as such.The principle that it is never permissible intentionally to kill an innocent human being is a foundational principle of Catholic moral and social thought. You cannot regard every other human being as an imago dei, as a living icon of God, while at the same time deliberately erasing them from existence to achieve your own purposes, when they threaten no harm to anyone. This principle is foundational in two senses:First, it extends across the spectrum of social activity, orienting our interaction with other human beings in each and every sphere of our existence. So it is never permissible intentionally to kill the old and weak (euthanasia). It is never permissible intentionally to attack non-combatants in war time (counterpopulation warfare).Second, it is a floor, not a ceiling. We have an obligation not unfairly to impose a risk of death on others--even if we're not intentionally killing them. We have an obligation to help others in their distress. B t as a floor, the principle safeguards the basic level of respect owed to each and every human being.Articulating the principle, however, important, isn't enough. We need also to define its terms, and apply it to specific cases. In the case of abortion, three questions arise: 1) What is a human being; 2) What is it to be innocent in the relevant sense; and 3) What does it mean to intentionally kill? Contemporary Catholic moral analysis judges that embryos and fetuses are equally protectable human beings from the moment of conception. It also treats them as innocent.A question long debated by Catholic moralists, however, is what does it mean to "intentionally kill another human being? This is also a thorny problem of contemporary action theory. In my view, the best approach to this question has been provided by the English analytic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in her book Intention. She argues that the best way to find out what a person intends is to ask them what they are "doing", followed by a series of "why" questions.An intentional act is a human act--a purposeful act. In order to know the agent's intention in acting (the "object" of the act), we need to know the description under which the agent is engaging that action. It's not enough to simply look at the isolated physical act and judge from there. So a serial killer and a surgeon may both cut into the human body with a knife, but the intentional acts in which they engage are very different--they would honestly answer the basic question "What are you doing?" in very different ways.Furthermore, an intentional act is a purposeful act. Human beings act generally act with purposes and plans--and those plans are nested. So we intend not only what we are doing here and now, but the purposes and plans in the chain of action of which they are a part. We intend our ends, and the means to our ends. We do not, however, intend every consequence caused by our actioneven if we foresee they will occur. So, to take a homey example, if I take NyQuil, I intend to quell my cough, not to get buzzed. Its the quelling that is a means to my future plansa good nights sleepnot the buzz. I accept getting buzzed as a foreseen but unintended side effect of taking medicine that is quelling my cough.In most cases, the medical procedure called abortion involves the intent to kill the baby--that's its purpose. There are some rare situations, however, where that is not the case. The immediate aim (object) of the procedure is simply to separate the baby from its dependence on the mothers system, not to kill the baby, either as an end in itself or as a means to another end. The babys death does not contribute to the saving of the motheronly the separation does. If the baby lived after separation, everyone would rejoice. The babys death is not intended as either an ends or a means, but is accepted as a terrible side effect of the separation procedure. Is causing the baby's death as a foreseen but unintended side effect fair? In some cases, this might be a difficult question. In a situation where both mother and baby otherwise would die, I think one could make a strong case that it is fair to go ahead with the procedure .In the Arizona case discussed in Lisa's post below, I think it is likely that what took place wasnt an "abortion in the sense the procedure is prohibited by Catholic moral teaching. It was a surgical separation of mother from baby, with the foreseen, terrible, and unwanted side effect of causing the babys death. And without the procedure, both mother and baby would die. So causing the baby's death as a side effect of the separation was fair.Germain Grisez--whom no one ever accused of being either a consequentialist or a Commonweal Catholic--analyzes the situation more fully and along the same lines in a section of f his three-volume The Way of the Lord Jesus entitled "Is Abortion Always the Wrongful Killing of a Human Person?".Take a look.

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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