Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 64(3) August 2014

Pre term induction and abortion

Prof David Albert Jones

David JonesDear Sir,

In the wake of the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, the Catholic Medical Quarterly is to be commended for addressing difficult questions of a clinical, ethical, and doctrinal kind (list of articles and correspondence). However, in relation to the doctrinal aspect, readers should be aware that there are different interpretations of the Catholic tradition among faithful theologians and philosophers.

A key point of agreement is the impermissibility of direct or procured abortion as this is defined by Pope Saint John Paul II in his encyclical on the Gospel of Life: “procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth” (Evangelium Vitae 58). What is disputed is precisely the meaning and scope of “the deliberate and direct killing… of a human being” (deliberata… ac directa hominis occisio) in cases such as that presented by Mrs Halappanavar.

In defence of Mr Anthony McCarthy of SPUC, many “quoted statements from Church sources” on this topic are indeed prima facie compatible with an account of direct killing understood in relation to “how death is caused” and whether it is by “a procedure which is destructive” (CMQ 2014 (2)32-33). On the other hand, in defence of Dr Robert Walley of MaterCare there are a number of Catholic theologians and philosophers in good standing with the Church who would argue that “to induce premature labour” (CMQ 2013 (4) 11-12), even if done before viability, need not necessarily imply deliberate and direct killing. Dr Walley’s view could find support in the writings of Germain Grisez (The Way of the Lord Jesus Vol II, 1993), Norman Ford (The Prenatal Person, 2002), Martin Rhonheimer (Vital Conflicts in Medical Ethics, 2009) and Patrick Lee (Abortion and Unborn Human Life, 2010), among others. If, in a particular exceptional case, induction of labour prior to viability were shown not to be direct killing then it would not fall under the definition of procured abortion given by St John Paul II.

For those who are interested in Catholic teaching on this topic, please see a recently published paper in which I argued that appeal to magisterial teachings “is not sufficient to settle this contemporary debate over what constitutes direct abortion” (DA Jones “Magisterial Teaching on Vital Conflicts: A Reply to Rev. Kevin Flannery, SJ” National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 14.1 (Spring 2014): 81–104).

Please note that this letter is written in an individual capacity and does not represent the views or position of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre.

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