Thursday 15 November 2012

Induced delivery of non-viable children is neither ethical nor Catholic

In the wake of the tragic death of Savita Halappanar, various pro-life and Catholic commentators have been claiming that inducing delivery of Savita's child would have an appropriate course of action. They claim that an induction does not constitute abortion and is standard medical practice in Ireland.

These commentators are wrong. In its 2009 "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services", the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) teaches [my emphases in bold]:
"45. Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted. Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion..."
"49. For a proportionate reason, labor may be induced after the fetus is viable."
Savita was in the 17th week of pregnancy. There is no scientific evidence that unborn children are capable of surviving outside the womb at such a young age. If the doctor in Savita's case had agreed to induce her child,  he would have been performing an abortion. The principle of double-effect would not have justified inducing Savita because:
  • the termination of pregnancy before viability (which would certainly have killed the child) would have been directly intended, and would not have been (as double-effect requires) an indirect and unintended effect
  • the sole immediate effect of the inducing would have been the termination of pregnancy before viability, thus killing the child
  • there are alternative ways of managing these highly distressing cases (see my blog on the International Symposium on Maternal Health held in Dublin in September).
The intrinsic wrongness of inducing babies before viability has been taught clearly by the Catholic Church. In the late 19th century a doctor who practised premature delivery of non-viable children in the belief that it could save mothers' lives asked the Holy Office (now called the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith) if his practice was licit. The Holy Office replied* in 1895:
"In the negative, according to other decrees [of the Holy Office]".
This reply of the Holy Office was approved the next day by Pope Leo XIII himself. One of those "other decrees" (1889) had declared as not "licit":
"every surgical operation that directly kills the fetus".
Another papally-approved reply by the Holy Office in 1898 referred to the 1895 reply above (condemning premature delivery of non-viable children) as a
"decree...on the illicitness of abortion". 
The Church was thus making clear that premature delivery of non-viable children is abortion.

In 1902 another reply of the Holy Office decreed that it was not permitted to extract from the womb an unborn child earlier than six months after conception (at that time, the point of viability), explaining that:
"[W]ith respect to accleration of the birth is licit, unless it be performed at the time and according to the methods by which in the ordinary course of events the life of the mother and that of the fetus are considered."
In other words, premature delivery of non-viable children violates their right to life. Pro-life and Catholic commentators should take care not to deny that truth nor promote such inducing as an ethical response to medical emergencies.

*See "The Sources of Catholic Dogma", Henry Denzinger, Loreto Publications, 1955, section 1889 onwards.

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