Kaveny on Abortion

Cathy Kaveny, professor of law and theology at Notre Dame, has weighed in on Dotcommonweal on the controversy surrounding the announcement of the excommunication of Margaret McBride, a Sister of Mercy (pictured at right), by Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix, for her approval of an abortion in the case of a critically ill mother.  Olmstead accused her of "formal cooperation" in an abortion with results in a latae sententiae excommunication; that is, the person automatically excommunicates herself or himself.  Kaveny responds:

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 action–even 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.  It’s the quelling that is a means to my future plans–a good night’s sleep–not 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 mother’s system, not to kill the baby, either as an end in itself or as a means to another end.  The baby’s death does not contribute to the saving of the mother–only the separation does.  If the baby lived after separation, everyone would rejoice. The baby’s 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 wasn’t 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 baby’s 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 aCommonweal 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?”.

Read the rest at Dotcommonweal.  (Link fixed.)

James Martin, SJ

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Brian Thompson
8 years 4 months ago
When results are too intimately tied up in each other, the double effect fails because the good cannot be a direct result of the evil. 
The problem is that there do exist intrinsic evils that no re-description of object or intent can redeem. You cannot just change reality by how you describe it. To use the serial-killer example: What? cutting flesh, Why? to satisfy a psychological impulse. No mention of the murder, yet we still revile him. because he is a murderer!
Stuff means stuff. You cannot weasel out of moral truth, no matter how clever you are. Catholic morality is comfortable standing on the very edge of the precipice of what is morally acceptable, because it knows, or has the tools to discover, exactly where the divisions of Good, neutral, permissible, and evil lie. Yes there are gradations and shades, but we know where to step in the dim light. This does not mean that we should go to the edge and test how far we can lean, however.
Gregory Popcak
8 years 4 months ago
Because I expected I might receive calls about this, I asked a moral theologian who serves as a consultant to my ministry to offer some insights.  This is an excerpt:
''…I also saw the post at dotCommonweal by Kaveny.  I doubt that even if Grisez's right that Kaveny is correctly applying his point.  Grisez seems to suggest that some abortions can be construed as not involving intentional killing - rather, as removing the unborn baby – with the bad but unintended consequence of its death - and that this might sometimes be justified.  Here are the USCCB Ethical & Religious Directives (ERD):
 ''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, which, in its moral context,includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo.''
The ERDs seem to be saying that even abortion that doesn't involve directly intended destruction/killing is intrinsically evil and never permissible. I think it's clear that what happened in AZ was ''intended termination of pregnancy before viability.''
The current ERDs were vetted by the CDF, primarily due to concerns that earlier versions had been too lax on some abortion-related issues. But I'm confident that the CDF would also have flagged for revision anything overly rigorous on such issues.  That alone gives me confidence that the USCCB's definition is correct - not overly rigorous/broad.
So I think that even if what happened in AZ wasn't intentional killing, it was still intrinsically evil and morally illicit.
Even if it's true that “termination-before-viability-that-isn't-intentional-killing” could be licit, I don’t think Kaveny is correctly applying this alleged norm.  Apparently the woman was at 11 weeks. I think it's unlikely that an abortion method was used that could be called something other than intentional killing (i.e. something like a C-section that doesn't dismember the baby).  I would add that - rejecting the Grisez/Kaveny view doesn't entail rejecting the view that hysterectomy when a pregnant woman has uterine cancer - or (much more common) salpingectomy for ectopic pregnancy - is licit.  In this case, we don't even have intentional termination - we have intentional removal of an organ or tissue that's in a pathological state - with the removal from the mother's body of the baby, a further, unintended effect of this.''
Michael Liddy
8 years 4 months ago
This analysis is all above me. I just keep thinking about two things – this world can be extremely difficult and painful, and yet miracles do happen. We all know that an 11 week old has never survived outside the womb, and we also know that many adults (and pre-born children) have come back from the brink of death and surprised their doctors.
James Lindsay
8 years 4 months ago
It depends upon how the baby was removed. If delivery was simply induced rather than sliced and diced and the intent was to save the mother's life, it would seem that this has to be permitted - even though it is against Canon Law and the Catechism. In this instance, doctrine is wrong, not action. What actually happens to people is much more important than adhering to a moral stance. Those who can't see that are taking too much responsibility onto themselves for making sure other people behave. That is called copedendency.

This issue would not have come up save for the Church's teaching on birth control and sterilization. A woman with pulmonary hypertension should never be put in the position of having to get pregnant. Clerical idealism about sexuality needs to be abandonned in such cases. She has a human right to have sex with her husband and an equal right to keep breathing. This is another instance where papal teaching is wrong. The teaching on sterilization started out as a defense of the mentally disabled's reproductive rights in the face of eugenics. It was a pro-choice position in its day. (I am assuming, of course, that the trisomic condition which causes Down's syndrome cannot result in defective gametes - if it could, perhaps sterilization is a correct preventative). This position, however, has evolved into something which could be characterized as an evil teaching that Jesus himself would have condemned with the other sins of the pharases.
William Kurtz
8 years 4 months ago
Palestine 2000 years ago, the chief priests and Pharisees said, "it is better that one die than the whole nation perish."
Phoenix 2010, the bishop says, it is better that two might die, than that there be any confusion on abortion.
And if the hospital had done as the bishop decided (six months after the fact), and the mother had died, would the bishop have taken care of her other children? And what about paying damages for a wrongful death judgment?
8 years 4 months ago
Tortuous, ridiculous reasoning.
Jim McCrea
8 years 4 months ago
Maria:  you are obviously referring to Olmstead's reasoning.
I agree with you.  He is both tortuous AND ridiculous and a disgrace as a pastor.
Liz Brandt
8 years 4 months ago
I'm grateful to Bishop Olmsted for encouraging me for the first time ever in my adult Catholic life to fully, prayerfully consider the concept of abortion. Having always been pro-life, including anti-Death Penalty, I have at times been woeful in my due diligence. In fact, I last paid the issue mind (aside from ongoing fervent prayer for women in need) when I voted against President Obama, as his extreme pro-abortion record gave grave concern.
For the past several days, I've been consumed with prayers and consideration for Sr. Margaret McBride, St. Joseph's Hospital staff and the family who suffered intense loss and trauma. Many people are Monday morning quarterbacking but the conjecture on specifics does not foster healing. Only Sr. Margaret, staff and family know the medical details. However, there was one person who had the benefit and blessing of making a choice in due time, with facts and adequate reflection. And that of course was Bishop Olmsted.
Tragically, he made the wrong choice. In fact I'm going to relay exactly how much damage he's doing to our Pro-Life cause. I, who served in many ministry capacities am considering making a donation to Phoenix Planned Parenthood in his name non-abortive (of course) services for a woman in need of true sexual health. I  have never been so incensed over a Bishop's extraordinary lack of compassion, counsel and wisdom in a specific circumstance crying out for Jesus' love and mercy.
How were the Gifts of the Holy Spirit evident in his decision?  In this climate of distrust and disrespect for hierarchy what compelled him to continue to publicly chastise (albeit latae sententiae) a faithful, distinguished servant who used her informed conscience in an actual crisis not ideally described in our catechetical manuals?
Moreover, the spiritual and emotional damage to the young mother of four is too much to fathom. The Bishop added unspeakable insult and burden to her injury. It seems this human side effect wasn't calculated in his staunch equation.
Furthermore, in order to get the full breadth of facts, I conducted research in very troubling realms, specifically extreme right websites, which thankfully represent few Catholics. The disrespect, pride and unchristian comments in those forums was astounding. My heartfelt questions, prayers and pain were met with hateful characterizations. These extremists feel emboldened  to insult others while touting pro-life values! Now I finally understand why abortion will continue to be legal: a faction of pro-lifers are viewed as nasty, uncompassionate Christians. Some of that failure is Bishop Olmsted's and other leaders to own and for which to atone. It certainly isn't Sister Margaret's sin.
Apparently bishops are Cafeteria Catholics, often wrongly used as a derogatory term for those who use their informed conscience. They too pick and choose which interpretation and application of Canon Law serves their higher purposes, at the expense of living innocents and hierarchical gain even.
I'm sending these sentiments to many in the Phoenix Diocese in order tol affirm 'informed thinking and acting' employees and Sisters who will struggle with the cataclysmic faith fallout. The Sensus Fidei, the reasonable minded majority, true treasures in the pew, refuses to condone uninspired, ill-advised leadership.
8 years 4 months ago
Mr. McCrea: It is to Kaveny's tortuous, ridiculous reasoning to which I referred and not the reasoning of Bishop Olmstead.
Dale Rodrigue
8 years 4 months ago
Murder vs killing.
I appreciate all the technicalities of the discussion. However, one must be reasonable and avoid the extremes. On one extreme, the purist, one must never abort vs abortion is good birth control.
There is murder, which is never acceptable, taking of an innocent life for no reason which is immoral and
killing, taking a life for accepted reasons such as self defence, troops killing in a war, vehicular manslaughter, etc, it is not immoral and there is no imputed guilt ascribed to the one who takes a life.
I believe that this was not murder and there is no guilt imputed to Sr. McBride. She made a tough choice. But the results of her decision did indeed save one life, the mother.
We tend to focus on the fetus and ask is it moral to take its life but why is it we don't focus on the question, is it moral to take the mother's life?
In the end is saving one life better than losing two? I believe it is and she is to be commended.


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