Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 64(3) August 2014

Preterm Induction and Abortion

Adrian Treloar


The debate upon Pre term induction and abortion has been lively and hotly contested.

In British Law, eating a 19th Century cabin boy to allow two men in a lifeboat to survive was illegal and murder, even though all three would have died if the cabin boy was not eaten. His death had not been imminent. But the inevitability of death did not make killing him justifiable.

It is clear that the deliberate killing of one for the sake of another is not allowed by Catholic teaching. But in fact the Church has long held the removal of an ectopic pregnancy to be ethical. This is justified on two counts. Firstly that the conceptus is often dead and in the past death was presumed. Secondly that even if the foetus is alive, death is imminent and so nothing is changed.

It is similarly true that when death of mother or baby is imminent, then the induction of labour really cannot be construed as being ethically the same as abortion. If the mother is dying and dies, then a pre viable baby will be dead as sure as night follows day. Indeed to construe such a thing as abortion almost appears to make abortion seem less abhorrent.

I wonder if the debate triggered by the death of Savita comes down to this. The direct killing of an unborn child is always wrong. But when death is imminent and inevitable, induction of labour might sometimes be as justified as surgical removal of an ectopic pregnancy. If that is so, then there is a complex debate to be had about the ethics of treating ectopic pregnancies with cytotoxics.

Tragically, for Savita of course, none of this is really relevant. She died of septicaemia and with the right treatment both mother and baby should have survived.

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