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Abortion & Euthanasia

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Euthanasia and Abortion: A Catholic View

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

I. Euthanasia

Until a few decades ago, euthanasia (easy death) was scarcely understood even as a word, let alone discussed except in a small circle of social theorizers. Many people still think of it in terms originally defined by the Euthanasia Society of America as “the termination of human life by painless means for the purpose of ending severe physical suffering.”

But much has happened since the Euthanasia Society was organized, and those concerned with the future of society have suddenly awakened to the implications of so-called “mercy killing.” These implications strike at the most cardinal premises of biblical revelation. They affect every facet of personal and social existence, and they emphasize with stark clarity the need for sound Christian principles if the very foundations of human civilization are to remain intact.

Science has freed man from subjection to many of the forces of nature and, in large measure, brought them under his control. One effect has been to give man a sense of mastery of the universe, which he never enjoyed before. This includes mastery over human life, from planning conception to determining who shall live and for how long. Another effect has been to immerse man in the satisfaction of this world, which his own genius has discovered, with corresponding indifference to whatever lies beyond the experience of man’s life on earth.

Couple these two effects and you have some explanation of why such a practice as euthanasia should have come to the surface in our day, and why its proponents are so logically persuasive in defending what the faith that created civilized human culture considers murder.

It is perfectly reasonable, on secularist grounds, to argue that helpless invalids, bedridden cripples, and the unproductive aged should be quietly but firmly phased out of existence. Why not? They are, on the principles we are examining, useless members of society: useless to themselves, since all they may have facing them is the pain and disability of the future; and useless to others, since what can they contribute to the welfare of society, which measures a person’s value by his utility to increase the physical well-being of mankind?

In 1940, the Holy See was asked about the morality of euthanasia. The occasion for the question was the growing specter of legalized murders of those whom the Communists and Nazis considered undesirable.

“Is it permissible,” Rome was asked, “upon the mandate of public authority, directly to kill those who, although they have committed no crime deserving of death, are yet, because of psychic or physical defects, unable to be useful to the nation, but rather are considered a burden to its vigor and strength?” The reply was to be expected: “No, because it is contrary to the natural and the divine positive law.” [1]

Why does Catholic Christianity condemn euthanasia? Because, no matter what sentimentalists or social engineers may say, it is a grave crime against justice, both human and divine. God alone has the ownership of human life. Those who practice euthanasia assume the right of ownership over life. Therefore the sin committed is either murder or suicide.

There is a built-in respect for human life in the biblical tradition that has created the Judaeo-Christian culture. “You shall not kill” is not only a mandate of the Decalogue. It is the expression of reverence for a human person, no matter how young or old, how strong or weak, and irrespective of his physical, mental, or emotional condition.

What would genocide, under the semantic cloak of euthanasia, do to this reverence for life? It would reduce it to a pious irrelevance and remove it from effective influence on the mores of the people.

Implicit in the Christian value system is the realization that human life is sacred, of and by itself, apart from any profitable function it may serve as a tool of “productivity.” A mother, who cares for her child, cares in two deeply meaningful ways. She cares because she loves and, out of a mother’s love that Scripture cites to symbolize selfless dedication, she cares for the needs of the offspring of her womb. So, too, a devoted son or daughter cares for an aged parent, first in the basic sense that the parent is loved, and then in the consequent sense that, out of love, the parent is provided with whatever he or she may need.

Hidden in the revealed mystery of love is the capacity of the human heart to give itself to another person for the sake of that person, to please him, and without thought as to “What will I get out of it?” or “What good will it do for me?”

After all, what do we mean when we speak of the dignity of human life? Do we not mean that a human being is worthy (hence he has the dignity) of being loved just because he is human, no matter how otherwise lacking in dignity he may seem to be, made to the image and likeness of God, redeemed by the blood of Christ, and destined to be with God in heaven for eternity? No wonder the Catholic Church looks upon euthanasia as “infamous, harmful to civilization, and dishonorable to the Creator.” [2]

Not only does man have intrinsic dignity, but God has inalienable rights. The divine lordship over human life is an article of the Catholic faith, namely, “I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” As a creature of God, to whom man owes every element of his being, man is entrusted only with the stewardship of his earthly existence. He is bound to accept the life that God gave him, with its limitations and powers; to preserve this life as the first condition of his dependence on the Creator; and not deliberately curtail his time of probation on earth, during which he is to work out and thereby merit the happiness of his final destiny.

Another reason why Catholicism reprobates euthanasia is founded on what may be called the principle of “the total good.” This postulates a belief in the total and not merely partial reality of human existence. Unless those to whom the care of human beings is confided, believe that man is more than mere animal; unless they further believe that life is not limited to the short span of time between conception and the grave; and unless they believe that man participates marvelously in the very life of God¾inevitably their disbelief (or presuppositions) will find expression in what they consider “good” for a person.

As the Catholic Church views man’s earthly sojourn, it is just that: a pilgrimage on which he has been placed by God during which he is to co-operate with the divine will in order to attain a greater or lesser share in God's infinite beatitude.

The totality of what constitutes man, on Catholic premises, is not body alone, but mortal body joined with immortal spirit. It is not earthly life alone, but a continuum of that life that begins as soon as a child is conceived and bridges the moment called death into eternity. It is not even human life alone, of body and soul, but human life elevated to participation in God’s life because God became man in the person of Jesus Christ.

Essential to this view of totality is the value of human liberty, by which a person can freely collaborate with divine grace and thus give glory to God, although lying in bed as a “helpless” invalid; the value of enduring the cross by patiently accepting, in oneself and in others, the ravages of disease or the heavy demands of old age; and the value of loving mercy, which does not ask why, but like Christ, sacrifices self for others just because they are others, and knows that the self-oblation is pleasing to God.

Given the premise that only God has absolute mastery of human life, only he may take away what he originally conferred, whenever and under whatever circumstances he wills. Ours is not mastery but only ministry, of our own lives as of the lives of others. We may not, without grave injustice to God, deliberately terminate innocent human life.

The first qualification, then, is that the divine commandment not to kill applies to all innocent persons, whether born, or unborn. Disqualified from the precept are those who are judged (by rightful civil authority) to be a grave menace to society¾such as criminals; unjust aggressors from whom we may protect ourselves and others, or the equivalent of unjust aggressors in prosecuting a just war.

Assuming that a person is innocent, not only may we not deliberately take away his life, but we may not even intend to do so. That is one side of the issue.

The other side is that which matters most here, the person’s intention. Even in the case of innocent persons, situations can arise where there is no intent to have someone die. Just the opposite. The desire is that he or she might live. But the death of an innocent person may be permitted, in the sense of tolerated, if again (just as in the example of an individual risking his life for the common good) it is in the pursuit of a proportionately good end. Thus where radical surgery is urgently necessary to save a mother’s life, a diseased organ like the uterus may be removed although it contains a nonviable fetus that will certainly die as an unwanted side effect of the hysterectomy.

Precise words on this matter are critical. Something is directly intended when it is the immediate object of a human act, when it is the specific motive for my action, when it is the guiding purpose I have in view.

We now shift focus from the negative prohibition, that innocent life may not be deliberately terminated, to the positive injunction that man has an obligation to sustain his own life and the life of those who depend on him.

It is at this point that the developments of modern science, notably of medicine, enter the picture. The discovery of vitamins, hormones, antibiotics, sulfa drugs, penicillin; of genes and chromosomes as hereditary transmitters; of the continuity of germ plasm and the laws of genetic mutation¾have all been made by men whose lives spanned the last and present centuries, and whose contributions to longevity have no parallel since the origin of man.

For our purpose, the moral axiom remains that we must use ordinary means to sustain life, and that extraordinary means, as we have seen, are not obligatory except in rare circumstances. What is changing, of course, is the range of possibilities for extending the human lifespan, in some countries by almost 50 per cent since the turn of the century. As a result, what used to be extraordinary may become ordinary means of maintaining life, with prospects for a longer stay on earth for a larger number of people. Christianity views this progress with approval, and the Church encourages its advancement for the service of man. But it must be “man in his entirety, with attention to his material needs and his intellectual, moral, and spiritual demands in the proper order.” [3] Viewed in this light, euthanasia is a misnomer. It should be called “lugrothanasia,” i.e., unhappy death, because it deprives a person who could live longer of the prospect of giving greater glory to God and of gaining more happiness in the life to come.

One aspect of euthanasia seldom referred to in popular writing is its possible connection with the transplanting of vital human organs. It was not by chance that the Catholic hierarchy has issued directives for hospital facilities indicating that a transplant may be done provided the loss of such organ(s) does not deprive the donor of life itself. As specialists in the field are careful to explain, two questions hover like clouds over the transplanting of vital organs. One is to know precisely, on scientific grounds, when a person is dead. The other is how effective a transplant can be if a vital organ, like the heart, is transferred from an authentically dead body. The medical temptation is to anticipate actual death in order to insure an effective transplant.

II. Abortion

The Roman Empire into which Christianity was born practiced abortion and infanticide on a wide scale. Chronologically, the exposure of unwanted infants came earlier, and was sanctioned by Roman law. By the first century B.C., Romans were gradually getting away from exposure, while abortions were on the increase. The distinction they made between infanticide and abortion was due to the difference between the emotional reactions to what they must see and what they could avoid seeing. [4]

From the outset, therefore, the Christian religion was confronted with a society in which abortion was the rule rather than the exception. The Church reacted immediately and vigorously. The Didache (composed before A.D. 80) told the faithful what they must not do: “You shall not procure abortion. You shall not destroy a newborn child.” [5]

Before the year A.D. 138, the epistle of Barnabas was equally explicit, placing the crime of abortion among the actions of those who walk the Way of Darkness. “There are two Ways of instruction,” Christians were told, “as there are two powers, that of Light and that of Darkness. And there is a great difference between the Two Ways. The one is controlled by God’s light-bearing angels, the other by the angels of Satan. And as the latter is the Ruler of the present era of lawlessness, so the former is Lord from eternity to eternity.” Among the precepts of the Way of Light is this: “Do not murder a child by abortion, or commit infanticide.” [6] Significantly, the two operative words in the prohibition are explicitly “murder” (Greek phonenõ, bloody slaughter) and “child” (teknon).

As the Christian attitude toward abortion began to penetrate Roman society, Christian believers were challenged by the prevalent Stoic theory of human life beginning only at actual birth of the fully developed infant. This would mean that there could be no destruction of a child by abortion. The faithful were therefore reminded that this was not true; rather that the life begun at conception continued essentially unchanged during its whole period of development. Induced abortion at any stage was a homicide. [7]

Two distinctions should be kept in mind regarding this matter: between Catholic morality and canonical penalties, and between the official teaching of the Church and ecclesiastical writers, no matter how celebrated. Clarification here will help dissipate what has become a gray area for many Catholics in today’s animated controversy over abortion.

On the level of morality, Roman Catholicism has always held that the direct attack on an unborn fetus, at any time after conception, is a grave sin. The history of this teaching has been consistent and continuous, beginning with the earliest times and up to the present.

The Church’s teaching on abortion is just that; it is doctrine the Church proclaims on the prior assumption that the magisterium is empowered by Christ to proscribe and prescribe in any area of human conduct that touches on the commandments of God, whether derived from nature or from supernatural revelation. Arguments may be given and reasons offered to support the Church’s teaching; but the ultimate “reason” why Catholics obey this teaching is the authority given the Church to command obedience in Christ’s name. If this seems like “arguments made by an external judge,” the Catholic faithful will answer, “We must put aside all judgment of our own, and keep the mind ever ready and prompt to obey in all things the true spouse of Christ and Lord, our holy Mother, the hierarchical Church.” [8]

Once this is admitted, that for a Catholic the Church’s moral teaching partakes of faith in the Church, it is quite secondary and, in fact, irrelevant, that the doctrine should also be expressed in juridical terms. As a visible society that believes it has the right from God to make laws for its members, the Church encourages what has come to be known as Canon Law. But Canon Law is only an attempt to organize and systematize for prudential reasons the external aspects of what is essentially not juridical: the will of God in its demands on the will of man. It would be a mistake, therefore, to suppose that the Catholic teaching on abortion uses arguments that are based on a juridical model. Quite the contrary. The juridical model is not the basis of Catholic morality; rather, juridical norms are only as valid as they are based on the faith principles of the Church’s moral doctrine.

The term “abortion” as understood in Catholic morality means expelling an immature fetus from the mother’s womb. The fetus must, first of all, be living; if it is certainly dead, its removal is not only permissible but ordinarily necessary. Moreover, the fetus must be immature or nonviable, by which is meant that it cannot live outside the womb even with the most extraordinary medical care. In ordinary circumstances a fetus is considered viable by the end of the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy, allowing for two or so weeks earlier if the child is to have special medical assistance like an incubator.

Since the modern legalization of abortion, however, the same term is used medically to describe what is more properly a form of feticide, where the living fetus is directly killed by a variety of new sophisticated physical or chemical means. In moral language, this too is abortion, but with the added malice of a direct assault on human life within the womb.

More important, though, from the moral standpoint is the intention that motivates an abortion. Although the same word “abortion” is used, it has a totally different moral meaning¾depending on whether the motive is to directly attack the fetus, no matter what purpose is alleged to excuse the attack; or whether the motive is to save the life of a pregnant mother and, in the process, the unborn child is reluctantly permitted to die.

Consequently, even though pregnancy is involved, it is lawful to extract from the mother a womb that is dangerously diseased (e.g., cancerous). This is not the same as direct abortion, and Catholic morality allows this kind of increasingly rare surgery according to what has come to be known as the principle of the double effect. To be licitly applied, the principle must observe four limiting norms:

  1. The action (removal of the diseased womb) is good; it consists in excising an infected part of the human body.

  2. The good effect (saving the mother’s life) is not obtained by means of the evil effect (death of the fetus). It would be just the opposite, e.g., if the fetus were killed in order to save the reputation of an unwed mother.

  3. There is sufficient reason for permitting the unsought evil effect that unavoidably follows. Here the Church’s guidance is essential in judging that there is sufficient reason.

  4. The evil effect is not intended in itself, but is merely allowed as a necessary consequence of the good effect.

Summarily, then, the womb belongs to the mother just as completely after a pregnancy as before. If she were not pregnant, she would clearly be justified to save her life by removing a diseased organ that was threatening her life. The presence of the fetus does not deprive her of this fundamental right.

With the development of modern science, these so-called therapeutic abortions, where the mother’s life is in immediate danger, are becoming increasingly rare. The point has now been reached that more and more doctors come to reject the idea of therapeutic abortion entirely.

In actual practice, of course, numerous abortions had been performed for “therapeutic reasons” that were far removed from any immediate danger to the mother’s life, long before one country after another legalized abortion. Legalizing abortion whenever there is risk “that the continuance of the pregnancy would gravely impair the physical or mental health of the mother, or that the child would be born with grave physical or mental defect” is equivalent to abortion on demand. The “mental health of the mother” is a euphemism to cover every contingency where a woman has an unwanted pregnancy that she is willing to terminate to be relieved of the anxiety of having a child.

Wherein lies the essential sinfulness of abortion? It consists in the homicidal intent to kill innocent life. This factor of intent or willingness to destroy innocent human life is of paramount importance in making a correct assessment of the Catholic attitude toward abortion. It places the controverted question as to precisely when human life begins, outside the ambit of the moral issue; as it also makes the now commonly held Catholic position that human life begins at conception equally outside the heart of the Church’s teaching about the grave sinfulness of abortion.

The exact time when the fetus becomes “animated” has no practical significance as far as the morality of abortion is concerned. By any theory of “animation,” abortion is gravely wrong. Why so? Because every direct abortion is a sin of murder by intent. It is, to say the least, probable that every developing fetus is a human being. To deliberately kill what is probably human is murder.

If a person does not know for certain that his action is not killing another human being, he must accept the responsibility for doing so. Anyone who is willing to kill what may be human is, by his intention, willing to kill what is human. Consequently, the one who performs or consents to abortion inescapably assumes the guilt of voluntary homicide.

Furthermore, regardless of when the fetus is animated, to directly destroy it is to usurp a right that belongs solely to God, the right over the fruit of man’s reproductive act. Man may not interfere with God’s rights without seriously offending the Creator.

Already in the early Church the faithful were warned against those who sought to justify their misconduct by resorting to sophistries about “formed” and “unformed” life in the womb. St. Basil the Great, writing in A.D. 375, stated categorically: “A woman who deliberately destroys a fetus is answerable for murder. And any fine distinction as to its being formed or unformed is not admissible among us.” [9] If some jurists later on invoked the distinction to assess different canonical penalties, based on the accepted civil codes of their day, the Catholic Church itself never altered its permanent moral judgment that direct abortion is always gravely offensive to God because it is willingly homicidal in intention.

As might be expected, the Church’s hierarchy had to condemn the practice of abortion from the earliest years, and it has continued to do so unremittingly to the present day. The reason is twofold. The faithful had to be warned about the prevalent practices of unbelievers among whom they lived, and they needed motivation as Christians to resist their naturally selfish impulses to destroy unborn human life.

Literally hundreds of documents from the first through the present century testify to the same moral doctrine, with such nuances as time, place, and circumstances indicated. Only a few representative of these statements of the magisterium will be cited, and only in partial quotation or paraphrase. Two features that are common to all of this teaching are that abortion is a grave crime and that it is sinful because of its homicidal intent. One other feature that stands out is the frequent association of three sins in the same context: abortion, contraception, and sterilization, with such implications as the documents themselves clearly reveal.

The acceptance by the hierarchy of the Didache, which in the first century condemned abortion along with infanticide, made it the earliest extant authoritative witness to the Church’s proscription of taking unborn life.

From the second through the fifth centuries, one after another of the Fathers of the Church condemned abortion in the most stringent language.

The apologist Athenagoras, writing to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in A.D. 177, said that “all who use abortifacients are homicides and will account to God for their abortions as for the killing of men.” [10] Clement of Alexandria, in his work The Teacher, attacked abortion on the dual ground that it destroyed what God had created and, in the destruction of the fetus, was an offense to a necessary love of one’s neighbor.

Origen directed his words at women who call themselves believers but actually conform to the pagan unbelief around them. “There are some women,” he said, “of rank and great wealth, so-called believers, who began by taking drugs to make themselves sterile; and then they bound themselves tightly to procure an abortion because they do not want to have a child born of a slave father or of a man of lower station.” [11] Abortion was therefore added to contraceptive sterilization to make absolutely certain that, if pregnant, they would not give birth to an unwanted child.

Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis, published a similar work, Refutation of All Heresies, in which he traced the malpractices of some Christians to their infection by pagan ideas. He included the practice of contraception among immoral actions that spring from the erroneous belief that conjugal relations may be indulged without reference to their God-given purpose. Then, if contraceptives fail, abortion is resorted to. [12]

St. Jerome wrote in a similar vein during the fourth century, but about unmarried women who found the Church’s teaching on chastity too demanding. First he cites those who have intercourse out of wedlock, but make sure they do not conceive by taking appropriate drugs. Others become pregnant and then commit abortion to avoid exposure of their guilt.

It becomes wearisome to tell how many virgins fall daily. [They] drink potions to ensure sterility and are guilty of murdering a human being not yet conceived. Some, when they learn they are with child through sin, practice abortion by the use of drugs. Frequently they die themselves and are brought before the rulers of the lower world guilty of three crimes: suicide, adultery against Christ, and murder of an unborn child. [13]

The reference to murder of a human being not yet conceived is typical of the Catholic tradition, which sees in the contraceptive mentality a homicidal willingness to destroy in the womb what attempted sterilization did not prevent. The proscription of adultery against Christ assumes that Christian virginity is somehow consecrated to the Lord.

As we get into the fifth and sixth centuries, the testimony of John Chrysostom and Augustine, of Cyril of Alexandria and Caesarius of Arles merely confirms what, by then, was assumed to be part of the Catholic faith.

Although there was ecclesiastical legislation at an earlier date, the first well-known laws with prescribed penalties for both contraception and abortion were drafted in Spain (A.D. 527), by St. Martin of Braga, at the council of bishops over which he presided. [14]

In this historic legislation, three sins are joined together as of equal gravity, i.e., infanticide, abortion, and contraception. When the law stated that formerly such persons were not to receive Communion even at death, this did not mean that they were not absolved of their sin; but to stress the seriousness of their crime, the early Church in some parts of the Catholic world saw fit to withhold the added privilege of Holy Communion.

In the light of all this, it is not surprising that Post-Reformation Popes like Sixtus V, Gregory XVI, and Innocent XI, and the modern Pontiffs were so outspoken in condemning abortion, and appealed to the unbroken Catholic teaching in support of their condemnation. Pius XI called it a “very serious crime,” which attacks the life of the offspring hidden in the mother’s womb. He not only stigmatized the sin but also isolated the complicity in crime practiced by those in public office who condone the practice or even promote its legalization.

Some wish it [abortion] to be allowed and left to the will of the father or the mother; others say it is unlawful unless there are weighty reasons, which they call by the name of medical, social, or eugenic “indication.” Because this matter falls under the penal laws of the State by which the destruction of the offspring begotten but unborn is forbidden, these people demand that the “indication,” which in one form or another they defend, be recognized as such by the public law and in no way be penalized. There are those, moreover, who ask that the public authorities provide aid for these death-dealing operations. [15]

Pius XII returned to the sophism that the Church prefers the life of the child over that of the mother. That is not true. “Never and in no case has the Church taught that the life of the child must be preferred to that of the mother. It is erroneous to put the question with this alternative: either the life of the child or that of the mother. No, neither the life of the mother nor that of the child can be subjected to an act of direct suppression. In the one case as in the other, there can be but one obligation: to make every effort to save the lives of both, of the mother and the child.” [16]

John XXIII carried forward the same principles, with special insistence on the evil effects of legalized abortion on the whole of society, once its leaders approve the slaying of the unborn. “Human life,” he wrote, “is sacred; from its very inception the creative action of God is directly operative. By violating his laws, the divine majesty is offended, the individuals themselves and humanity are degraded, and the bonds by which members of society are united are enervated.” [17]

When the Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution regarding today’s world, declared that “Life from its very conception must be guarded with the greatest care,” and that “Abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes,” it rested its case on almost two millennia of Catholic faith and doctrine. Paul VI confirmed this teaching with a special declaration in the clearest possible terms. “Respect for human life,” he wrote, “is called for from the time that the process of generation begins. From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already.” Consequently, “Divine law and natural reason exclude all right to the direct killing of an innocent human being.” [18]

1 Pius XII, Decree of the Holy Office (Dec. 2, 1940).

2 Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, II, 27.

3 Ibid., III, 64.

4 Seneca, De Ira, I, 15.

5 Didache, II, 2.

6 Epistle of Barnabus, II, 19.

7 Tertullian, Apologia, IX, 6-7.

8 St. Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, “Rules for Thinking with the Church,” Rule 1.

9 St. Basil, Three Canonical Letters.

10 Athenagoras, Presbeia peri Christianon, 35.

11 Origen, Contra Haereses, 9.

12 Epiphanius, Panarion, PG 41, 339.

13 St. Jerome, Letter 22 (to Eustochium), 13.

14 Second Council of Braga, Canon 77.

15 Pius XI, encyclical Casti Connubii, I, 63-67.

16 Pius XII, allocution to the Association of Large Families, Acta Apostolicae Sedis (1951), XLIII, p. 855.

17 John XXIII, encyclical Mater et Magistra, III, 194.

18 Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, IV, 51; Paul VI (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), Declaration on Procured Abortion, III, 12 (Dec. 5, 1974).

Human Life Review
Vol. 1 - #4, Fall 1975, PP.88-100

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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