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In the light of a recent death of a pregnant woman in Ireland, it has been heard in the print and electronics media that she was denied abortion because Ireland is a Catholic country.

Her repeated requests for a termination were refused, he said, as the foetal heartbeat remained. And he said they were told this was so because "this is a Catholic country".

So do Catholic medical ethics not allow abortion? It didn't sound realistic to me since it becomes sometimes necessary.

  • Related question: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/5034/… – Oddthinking Dec 1 '12 at 10:19
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    Note that Ireland is an independent republic and it is not governed by the Vatican. The fact that a big part of the population is catholic is possibly the cause for their strict anti-abortion laws, but catholicism being the biggest religion in Ireland does not imply that all Ireland's laws must abide to Catholic principles, there is no legal "Catholic law". – nico Dec 1 '12 at 10:55
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    The disussion about the ethics of abortion don't really belong into the comments here, please continue this in Skeptics Chat. – Mad Scientist Dec 1 '12 at 13:13
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    Removed the off topic and obsolete comments. Please restrict commentary to the question and to useful ways of improving it. Avoid discussion, especially on sensitive topics such as this one. – Sklivvz Dec 1 '12 at 17:13
  • The Catholic Church sponsors hospitals as part of its charitable endeavors, which has various consequences. See, for instance theage.com.au/national/… – Paul Jul 30 '13 at 6:53
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The official position of the Catholic Church is pretty clear: they consider abortion to be murder. Though this doesn't mean that all Catholics agree with the official position.

From the encyclica Evangelium vitae from Pope John Paul II:

58: Among all the crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable. The Second Vatican Council defines abortion, together with infanticide, as an "unspeakable crime"

and

61: The texts of Sacred Scripture never address the question of deliberate abortion and so do not directly and specifically condemn it. But they show such great respect for the human being in the mother's womb that they require as a logical consequence that God's commandment "You shall not kill" be extended to the unborn child as well.

From the catechism of the catholic church:

2270 Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.

 

2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:

 

2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. "A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae," "by the very commission of the offense," and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law. The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.

 

2273 The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation:

  • @rob What do you mean by "actually prohibit"? – user5582 Jul 25 '13 at 16:41
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    @rob If they consider abortions to be murder, and they prohibit murders, is that not clear? – user5582 Jul 25 '13 at 17:41
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    @rob Performing an abortion automatically excommunicates you, which is the most severe punishment the catholic church can give out. The church has no legal authority outside the Vatican, so they can't actually prohibit them. – Mad Scientist Jul 25 '13 at 19:18
  • @rob, so you're saying the catholic church does not consider abortions to be murder? – user5582 Jul 25 '13 at 19:35
  • Then, what did you mean when you said "They hold that abortions are murder". – user5582 Jul 25 '13 at 19:45
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Yes, unless the operation is necessary and doesn't directly kill the fetus. (Some Catholics might consider that these cases do not constitute abortions. I haven't found clear official declarations one way or the other on this semantics issue.)

In-depth

The Church teaches that the unborn are human persons like you and I. From the Catechism,

2270 Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.

Because the unborn are human persons, deliberate killing is almost always wrong.

2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.

However, there are some cases in which killing is not immoral. The principle of double effect explains why killing in self-defense is often not immoral.

2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. "The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one's own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not."

[2269] Unintentional killing is not morally imputable. But one is not exonerated from grave offense if, without proportionate reasons, he has acted in a way that brings about someone's death, even without the intention to do so.

Finally, there are some cases in which letting someone die can be a moral choice. Again, the principle of double effect explains this. For example, if the lives of two people are in danger, and only one can be saved. This applies in the case of abortion. From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

However, if medical treatment or surgical operation, necessary to save a mother's life, is applied to her organism (though the child's death would, or at least might, follow as a regretted but unavoidable consequence), it should not be maintained that the fetal life is thereby directly attacked. [...] The death of the child is not intended, and every reasonable precaution is taken to save its life; the immediate effect intended, the mother's life, is good — no harm is done to the child in order to save the mother — the saving of the mother's life is in itself as good as the saving of the child's life.

So, in summary, the Church teaches that:

  • The unborn have "the rights of a person", including the right to live.
  • It is morally permissible to let one person die to save another, if necessary. This includes life-saving operations on the mother that cause the fetus to die, as long as the fetus is not directly killed.
  • It is morally permissible to kill an attacker to save another's life, if necessary.
  • But it is not morally permissible to kill one non-attacker to save another.
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    This doesn't appear to answer the title question... – Rory Alsop Jul 25 '13 at 11:48
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    How about if I add this at the top? "Yes, the church prohibits abortion and teaches that letting the fetus die in certain cases is not an abortion." The goal of my answer was to mention what the church thinks about the corner case the OP seems to be interested in. – Andres Riofrio Jul 25 '13 at 21:46
  • Downvoter, would you provide some criticism of this answer? – Andres Riofrio Mar 14 '17 at 18:36

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