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