Difficult Moral Questions: Is abortion allowable to save a mother’s life?

By: Sr. Clare Hunter, Director of the Respect Life Office

Question: The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is never permissible. What about in the case when an abortion would save the mother’s life?

This question is one that the Church takes very seriously, and with the utmost respect and compassion for all who might find themselves in this tragic situation. The Catholic Church’s stance on life issues is deeply rooted in the understanding of the unique gift of the human person, from the moment of conception. Therefore, each conception, each child, must be treated with the full rights and dignity of a person, regardless of the circumstances, as difficult as they might be, as in the case of the possible death of the mother.

The directive from the “Ethical and Religious Directive for Catholic Health Care Services” states that 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, which, in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo.” And further, “direct abortion is never morally permissible. One may never directly kill an innocent human being, no matter what the reason.” As you might already know, of the roughly 1.2 million abortions we have each year in this country, only four percent of women cite a problem with their health as being their primary reason for having an abortion (Guttmacher Institute). Such cases where the mother’s life is in danger are rare, and the Church must protect the life of each child, regardless of the circumstances of conception or gestation.

That being said, there are times when a procedure might be performed on the mother to help her, or her health, with the possibility that such a procedure could compromise the life of the child. In such rare cases, as long as it is not the direct intent to kill the child, it is not an abortion. Though serious consideration must be taken into account on the probability of death of the child, and this might change the mind of the parents. It seems natural that any mother or father would be willing to give their own lives for the sake of the life of their child, and in fact, countless have in history. In some unfortunate cases, the child might die due to complications, but the procedure or the intent must never be to harm the child.

I hope you understand that the Catholic Church is fulfilling her duty to protect what God has created and given to us – in this case the life of unborn children. It might be helpful to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church which can be found online – this is the particular section dealing with the Respect for Human Life. There are many good resources including the Church’s encyclical, “The Gospel of Life” or “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation Replies to Certain Questions of the Day.”

Do not hesitate to ask these moral questions, as well as to learn as much as you can about these issues, not only through reading, but also in prayer.

3 thoughts on “Difficult Moral Questions: Is abortion allowable to save a mother’s life?

  1. But, if it’s a case where doctors know the mother will die if the pregnancy continues, isn’t making the choice to not abort also making a choice to kill? Because the mother will die. You know? Prolife here, but this bothers me.

  2. Thank you for your question. Such situations are so tragic and difficult, and we must pray for any parent with such a diagnosis. It seems like there is no good solution here, yet be assured that allowing the pregnancy to continue, even if it results in the loss of the mother’s life, is not killing a life. As with any moral question what must be determined is the intention of the action. In this case, to choose abortion, the intent and act is to end the life of the child. Specific actions will be taken with the sole purpose of killing a human being. In the case of the mother’s life, there will be no actions taken to end her life. Nor is the intention to kill the mother by her pregnancy. Should this tragic event occur, it would be due to the natural occurrences of her body due to the pregnancy.

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