Fetuses Are Not Innocent

I’m calling for a moratorium on talking about “innocent life” in the context of abortion.  Here’s why.  The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is wrong–intrinsically wrong–because the taking of innocent life is always wrong.  But “innocent” in that sentence does not mean what “innocent” means in everyday speech, which is the context in which talk about defending or attacking “innocent life” usually occurs.

Saying that abortion is the taking of innocent life does not mean that the fetus is innocent in a “holistic” way–in the way that a gossip, or a person with a record of criminal convictions, or a cheater, or a habitual liar, is not.  It means that the fetus is “formally innocent” solely with respect to the situation that would seem to warrant the taking of its life by another person. “Innocent” means that the fetus is not a “formally unjust aggressor.”

“Formal innocence” is the criterion the Church uses to distinguish between killing that is self-defense and killing that is murder.  If you kill a nasty, otherwise terrible and depraved person who nonetheless is not attacking you unjustly, you’ve committed murder.  As much as that person sucks, he or she is formally innocent with respect to the reason you killed him or her.

And indeed, according to official teaching, a fetus can’t be anything but formally innocent, since it is not doing anything (or rather, not deliberately doing anything).  It is just there, being itself.

This brings up three important points.

First, it is for this reason that some moral theologians (including, I think, Cathy Kaveny on the Commonweal blog) have argued that the fetus could be thought of in some situations (such as the Phoenix case) as a materially unjust aggressor.  It does not intend to attack the mother’s body in an unjust way, but it nonetheless is doing just that, for reasons out of its control.  Thus the fetus would be in the same category as the starving but insane man who lunges at your head with a knife because he is convinced it’s actually a melon that sits atop your shoulders.  Killing such a person could be said to constitute self-defense.

Second, and of more interest to me in this post, is that formal innocence is not usually what we mean when we talk about a fetus being innocent.  Rather, we mean innocent in the sentimental way that we call adorable animals and babies innocent (Augustine notwithstanding).  We mean they are helpless, pitiable, and not [yet] mean beings who can insult us or harm us–and how could you be so cold-hearted that you’d kill such a creature?  This kind of rhetoric automatically juxtaposes the innocent fetus with other kinds of people whom society (and a large portion of the pro-life demographic, judging from voting statistics) does not usually call innocent and finds generally threatening or disgusting: enemy soldiers, death row inmates, and worst of all in this discourse, the women who seek abortions in the first place.  It is no coincidence, in my opinion, that the pro-life movement is often criticized for failing to care about just this kind of life outside the womb.

When we let our language about abortion slip between technical moral vocabulary and common sense ways of talking, we are left with the insidious implication that what’s at stake in the debate over abortion is the embodiment of innocence versus the embodiment of guilt:

-the poor, innocent, pure fetus versus a slutty, selfish woman who “should have known better,”
-or an innocent, harmless fetus versus a convict who’s “given up his right to live,”
-or an innocent, tranquil fetus versus a terrorist or civilians who have to become “collateral damage” because of the problem of terrorism.

When this happens, the fetus truly becomes a “fetish,” in Eugene McCarraher’s words.

Third, whether we intend it or not, calls to defend “the innocent fetus” can quickly morph into calls to defend the fetus because it is innocent.  Now talk about bad theology: implying that human beings have a “right” to life that can be forfeited such that they no longer “deserve” it.  As if it were possible for a person to “deserve” life in the first place!  Come on!  This is Grace 101, whether you are protestant or Catholic.  If our moral theology is going to be truly Christian, we ought to take a cue from the Christ who apparently was interested in saving life that specifically wasn’t innocent.

46 thoughts on “Fetuses Are Not Innocent

  1. This reminds me of that case of the nine year old girl in Brazil … “They took the life of an innocent,” Sobrinho told TIME in a telephone interview. “Abortion is much more serious than killing an adult. An adult may or may not be an innocent, but an unborn child is most definitely innocent.”

    Even if unborn life is innocent, and I agree with you that it isn’t in the sense it’s meant in pro-life arguments, why is innocent life more worthy? There was a post at First Things a wile ago that tried to justify the meta-worth of innocent life – Abortion, Capital Punishment, and War — One of These Things is Not Like the Other – but I’d like an explanation of the theology behind valuing any one life above another.

    • Perfect examples. That’s exactly what I mean, Crystal. And to borrow an expression from Megan, this is my reaction to both of those examples: “Vom.”

  2. Hey Sonja!

    I really like this post. I have something like a follow-up question about your first point. Do you think there’s actually room within the moral deliberation of the “official” Catholic Church to shift the issue of medically necessary abortions into the category of self-defense? (I have wondered this for awhile but haven’t really seen it done. Not that I do a ton of research about abortion, though.) And further, is there room to take up the language of the fetus as a materially unjust aggressor in certain cases, as Kaveny et al. seem to want to? I actually think that’s a potentially really fruitful way forward for situations such as the Phoenix case, but I’m concerned that the idea of abortions (specifically, abortive methods) as “intrinsically evil” will continue to function as a de facto trump card that stymies this kind of more nuanced thinking in the difficult cases. What do you think about this?

    • That’s a question I’ve wondered about, too, Liz. Honestly, Kaveny’s mention of it on the Commonweal blog is the only time I have ever heard anybody suggest that category for thinking about abortion.

      I think it makes supergood sense. I mean supergood sense. It also helps steer away from the kind of double-effect backflips that are necessary to accomplish anything so long as the “intrinsic evil” model is dominating the conversation (see, e.g., the 20+ page analysis of the Phoenix case that Prof. Lysaught of Marquette wrote, arguing solely through double-effect). And technically, the materially unjust aggressor thing does not even challenge the intrinsic evil label. But people will probably flip out over it if it’s put on the table because “intrinsic” means something different in common speech than it does in technical moral theology, and that common sense content has bled over into the moral debate. So we get bishops and others trying to explain intrinsic evil as meaning “Nothing can make it right, ever, ever, ever, period,” which in common speech is equivalent to “It’s really, really, really evil.” (Kaveny has a superb article in America Magazine on confusing the common and technical meanings of “intrinsic evil.”) What this kind of explanation does, though, is obscure the fact that DEFINITION is 99% of calling something “intrinsic” anything. So the debate is not at all about whether an intrinsic evil is ever permissible, but about whether or not certain things fit certain definitions. And that requires a lot more slow, careful thinking.

      So yes, I would love it if people would chill out and realize that they can do more than keep quoting ad nauseum that line from Evangelium Vitae, that no circumstances can make an abortion licit. That line doesn’t MEAN ANYTHING unless you define abortion first (which EV actually does not do in a very detailed way), and it also doesn’t mean anything until you realize that the claim that abortion is intrinsically evil DEPENDS ON the larger, more general claim, that the taking of formally innocent life is intrinsically evil.

      Also, here’s another point: Perpetrators of intrinsic evils are not necessarily “guilty” in our sense of the word. Masturbation, for instance, is an intrinsic evil. But look at this:

      Catechism, para. 2352. By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.” To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.

      I take “reduce to a minimum” to mean “The only sense in which this person can be said to be morally culpable is that the act was carried out by a hand belonging to him or her.”

      Now where is the lessening to a minimum of moral culpability in the cases of other intrinsic evils? You never hear that spoken about.

    • Elizabeth, right now that language of unjust aggressor is officially banned, there was an official statement on this a while ago– I can try to track it down if people are interested. And so are similar reasons for the use of contraception. And my understanding is that an intrinsic evil is never ever permissible. So abortion is an intrinsic evil but killing another isn’t (officially that is).

      • Can you track it down? I am really interested, because I see no logical reason why *materially* (not formally) unjust aggressor language can’t apply. Calling the fetus in a life-threatening pregnancy a materially unjust aggressor in no way rejects the claim that abortion is intrinsically evil. It just doesn’t. I don’t see how it could.

      • Will do, I have to email some profs. I think that’s the point, there isn’t a good reason…I think it’s really good thinking to use the unjust aggressor thing, and I’d stand by it too, but I’m not sure how to actually make progress officially.

      • Also, here is a good example of the importance of understanding the distinction between material and formal:

        Somebody asks this blogger:

        Is a victim allowed to take the life of an aggressor in order to save his or her own life, even if the agressor had not formed, or had been unable to form, an aggressive intent? If so, would not a foetus whose objective aggression was threatening the mother’s life, be in the same moral/legal position as an unwitting aggressor , or an aggressive child or mentally defective adult?

        The blogger, Ignis Ardens (ardensignis at blogspot) responds:

        Now, what does an unborn child’s aggression consist in? Existing, developing and growing. That is it.

        If that is aggression, deserving of death, then, where does that leave the hair-pulling, biting, child?

        What the blogger means to say is that the fetus in question is not a formally unjust aggressor. But what s/he doesn’t realize is that the fetus certainly could be considered a materially unjust aggressor.

    • Because it’s not a second-declension noun; it’s fourth, like “apparatus.” Second declension plurals end in “-i,” which we kind of bring over into English. But the plurals of something in the fourth declension (fetus, apparatus) is just “-us” (long “u”).

  3. Hello Sonja,

    I have to say that I cannot agree with what you’ve written here in your post, and furthermore I think that you have distorted some things about the Church’s teaching by exploiting popular stereotypes regarding what the pro-life ethic entails.

    First, I think that your clarification about the definition of innocence and your further (correct) designation of the unborn child as formally innocent is helpful, but I am not altogether certain what inference you want your readers to get from this observation. If you make this clarification because you want merely to clear up a misconception about the word, so be it; I am the last to believe that the world does not needs a more nuanced vocabulary when dealing with life issues. If you want to get more traction out of this distinction that you draw between the Church’s official definition and the more popular definition, however, I am not sure how much more you are actually going to get. In fact, I think your nuanced understanding of an unborn child as formally innocent can withstand your meditations on the “three important points” that follow in your discussion.

    The first situation that you deal with–the situation in which, as you claim, unborn children can in some cases become materially unjust aggressors–is the most difficult, but I don’t believe it is insurmountable. Leaving aside the fact that I don’t believe that an unborn child can ever truly be such an aggressor–material or otherwise–I am content here to talk on an abstract plane about the circumstances under which in which it would possible that a child could become a material unjust aggressor. Would it be the case in which the child’s life poses a physical threat to the life of the mother? This would seem the most plausible candidate, but highlighting this particular case totally sidesteps the fact that the vast majority of elected abortions in this country are cases in which families abort their children because other forms of contraception have failed (I am of course aware that elected abortions under these circumstances are complicated even more by socioeconomic conditions, but to comment on these now would take forever!). Another candidate could be the case in which the conception of the unborn child poses some sort of psychological threat to the mother. If this is the candidate that you want to put forward, it is a precarious candidate indeed, since the designation of another as an unjust aggressor is not merely a subjective notion in the eyes of the Church–it requires some sort of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions that can be externally satisfied.

    In your second point, you warn that utilizing the popular notion of innocence can lead to the lamentable juxtaposition of embodying innocence and embodying guilt, with the most unfortunate juxtaposition being that which embodies innocence in the unborn child on the one hand and embodies guilt in the mother who chooses to abort her unborn child on the other. This type of tout court type-casting is not at all helpful for fostering understanding between the pro-life movement and its opponents, and I think it is right for you to point that out. I also believe, however, that a proper theological presentation would at the very least point out the fact that our Church proclaims that such vindictive type-casting does not correspond to the Gospel and moreover is worlds away from what I see as coming through Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae.

    It is also here where I am not sure how your pointing out that unborn children are formally innocent makes any difference. In fact, I feel like if you invoked the term in this case, you would point out exactly how unborn children differ from selfish adults who forcefully extract the life-giving dimension of sex from its pleasure-giving dimension, or how unborn children differ from criminals who have killed other persons. Your third comparison between an unborn child and a terrorist or civilian who has been killed as “collateral damage” is conspicuously unlike the other two because it tries to consider at once two “categories” of people who properly deserve distinct treatment. In my view, the term ‘terrorist’ is most like the other two, in that, just as in the former two categories, the terrorist is an “objective” who must be neutralized. But if this is true, then the act of going after the terrorist is more like a ‘military objective’ rather than military ‘collateral damage.’ I’m not sure how your consideration of the civilian fits into this framework. In my view, killing the civilian is morally wrong for the same reason that killing the unborn child is wrong–both parties are formally innocent. This is not some view that I’m just making up; this is the official position proclaimed by the Church.

    Finally, in your third point, you clearly take issue with the theological position that claims (pace Aquinas) that a person can, through some action, forfeit some condition that grounds her ability to deserve living. (Of course, Thomas has in mind creating conditions under which one can execute criminals.) I happen to agree with you that this perspective is extremely problematic for moral theology, and I really do believe that your discussion lays the groundwork for a constructive argument against it. What is less clear to me is the parallel you want to draw either to unborn children and/or to the mothers who choose to bear or abort them. The very soteriological point you make about Christ choosing to save those who are “not innocent” is correct, but I think your rhetorical punch works against those who participate in the very unChristian enterprise of condemning others. Indeed, Christ came to save sinners, but he also notoriously pointed out sin where he saw it. If abortion is a sin, then we can reasonably believe, as the Church proclaims, that Christ will seek to redeem sinners and forgive sins. Whatever the sin, whether it be the sin of condemning others, the sin of perpetuating cycles of socioeconomic injustice, or the sin of killing the (formally) innocent, the Gospel convicts us where we are.

    To close this admittedly long response, I think your post, Sonja, aims rightly at dispelling acts of unChristian condemnation and misinformation among those who claim to be followers of Christ. The problem arises when you wax ambiguous as to the theological implications of what you say. I believe we as striving Catholic theologians should make our Church’s voice heard unambiguously in what we write, especially about a subject as controversial as abortion.

    • Craig, I have to admit I’m a little disturbed at how quickly you move past the instances of women whose lives are literally at stake in certain situations. I think that this kind of case is not aimed at “sidestepping” but rather for carving out a space in the quite polarized debate to deal not with an all-or-nothing approach but to talk rather about the complicated cases of women who have the choice to either die or be excommunicated by their faith tradition. Perhaps you would still agree with official Catholic church teaching that it is better that such women should die rather than willfully end a pregnancy, but even agreement demands the pastoral sensitivity to be aware of the tragedy involved.

    • Craig, I don’t think we actually disagree. I think you’re reading things that aren’t there.

      “First, I think that your clarification about the definition of innocence and your further (correct) designation of the unborn child as formally innocent is helpful, but I am not altogether certain what inference you want your readers to get from this observation.”
      I want them to see that the term “innocent” has two very different meanings depending on whether it’s being used in technical moral theological vocabulary or in everyday public discourse, and that the moralities that flow from those two meanings are very different. I also want them to see that we often unthinkingly slip from one meaning to the other.

      If you want to get more traction out of this distinction that you draw between the Church’s official definition and the more popular definition, however, I am not sure how much more you are actually going to get. In fact, I think your nuanced understanding of an unborn child as formally innocent can withstand your meditations on the “three important points” that follow in your discussion.
      I think you’ve misunderstood my post. My three important points are not meant to overturn the claim that the fetus is formally innocent. Indeed, my post (and the comments that follow) is a defense of the categories of formal versus material.

      The first situation that you deal with–the situation in which, as you claim, unborn children can in some cases become materially unjust aggressors–is the most difficult, Would it be the case in which the child’s life poses a physical threat to the life of the mother?
      Yes, that is what I am thinking about. The Phoenix case, to be specific (as previous blog posts and their comments suggest).

      “This would seem the most plausible candidate, but highlighting this particular case totally sidesteps the fact that the vast majority of elected abortions in this country are cases in which families abort their children because other forms of contraception have failed”
      Why is this a problem? I’m making a point about how language can break down, and language tends to break down in the “extreme” cases. Also, since this is a blog devoted to historically “marginal” persons/groups/positions, I think it’s quite appropriate to talk about the instances that are often shoved aside as being “exceedingly rare.”

      “Another candidate could be the case in which the conception of the unborn child poses some sort of psychological threat to the mother. If this is the candidate that you want to put forward, it is a precarious candidate indeed, since the designation of another as an unjust aggressor is not merely a subjective notion in the eyes of the Church–it requires some sort of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions that can be externally satisfied.”
      Yes, I am aware of what it requires.

      “In your second point, you warn that utilizing the popular notion of innocence can lead to the lamentable juxtaposition of embodying innocence and embodying guilt, with the most unfortunate juxtaposition being that which embodies innocence in the unborn child on the one hand and embodies guilt in the mother who chooses to abort her unborn child on the other. This type of tout court type-casting is not at all helpful for fostering understanding between the pro-life movement and its opponents, and I think it is right for you to point that out. I also believe, however, that a proper theological presentation would at the very least point out the fact that our Church proclaims that such vindictive type-casting does not correspond to the Gospel and moreover is worlds away from what I see as coming through Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae.”
      I think my third point highlights my belief that this kind of thing does not correspond to the Gospel. And as for EV, I’ve read it and am not a fan of it. So I criticized it.

      “It is also here where I am not sure how your pointing out that unborn children are formally innocent makes any difference.”
      It makes all the difference in the world in the Phoenix case, and in the many cases in which women have died from pregnancy complications and dubious moral analysis.

      “In fact, I feel like if you invoked the term in this case, you would point out exactly how unborn children differ from selfish adults who forcefully extract the life-giving dimension of sex from its pleasure-giving dimension,”
      I don’t know why you opened the contraception can of worms, especially since in the case of life-threatening pregnancies (with which this post is partly concerned), contraception would not clearly be a matter of “forcefully extract[ing] the life-giving dimension of sex,” let alone doing it “selfishly” (honestly, that is quite a charge, Craig, and an incredibly insensitive and in this context misogynistic one if I may say so), since the life that would result from that sex would introduce a “death-giving dimension” to the woman in question.

      “or how unborn children differ from criminals who have killed other persons. Your third comparison between an unborn child and a terrorist or civilian who has been killed as “collateral damage” is conspicuously unlike the other two because it tries to consider at once two “categories” of people who properly deserve distinct treatment. In my view, the term ‘terrorist’ is most like the other two, in that, just as in the former two categories, the terrorist is an “objective” who must be neutralized. But if this is true, then the act of going after the terrorist is more like a ‘military objective’ rather than military ‘collateral damage.’ I’m not sure how your consideration of the civilian fits into this framework. In my view, killing the civilian is morally wrong for the same reason that killing the unborn child is wrong–both parties are formally innocent. This is not some view that I’m just making up; this is the official position proclaimed by the Church.”
      The point of comparing things that don’t seem to go together is to highlight problems in our commonsense way of thinking and talking, not to reveal that I don’t know what I’m talking about. It is a standard stylistic and argumentative device. Comparing the fetus to the other kinds of people is meant to show that the kind of “innocence” we evaluate them by is in fact problematic.

      “Finally, in your third point, you clearly take issue with the theological position that claims (pace Aquinas) that a person can, through some action, forfeit some condition that grounds her ability to deserve living. (Of course, Thomas has in mind creating conditions under which one can execute criminals.) I happen to agree with you that this perspective is extremely problematic for moral theology, and I really do believe that your discussion lays the groundwork for a constructive argument against it. What is less clear to me is the parallel you want to draw either to unborn children and/or to the mothers who choose to bear or abort them. The very soteriological point you make about Christ choosing to save those who are “not innocent” is correct, but I think your rhetorical punch works against those who participate in the very unChristian enterprise of condemning others. Indeed, Christ came to save sinners, but he also notoriously pointed out sin where he saw it. If abortion is a sin, then we can reasonably believe, as the Church proclaims, that Christ will seek to redeem sinners and forgive sins. Whatever the sin, whether it be the sin of condemning others, the sin of perpetuating cycles of socioeconomic injustice, or the sin of killing the (formally) innocent, the Gospel convicts us where we are.”
      I’m not sure why you think I’d disagree with you there, or whether you think I don’t realize that the bible is polyvalent and can give rise to nearly infinite ethical reflections. I also don’t think you realize that there’s a rhetorical point to highlighting something that is not obvious, or something that is not commonly voiced (“commonly voiced” is how I would label the soteriological argument you just made).

      “To close this admittedly long response, I think your post, Sonja, aims rightly at dispelling acts of unChristian condemnation and misinformation among those who claim to be followers of Christ. The problem arises when you wax ambiguous as to the theological implications of what you say. I believe we as striving Catholic theologians should make our Church’s voice heard unambiguously in what we write, especially about a subject as controversial as abortion.”
      This is a blog on which we offer our own theological reflections. I’m not concerned with whether mine are insufficiently unambiguous to please whatever audience might stumble by. I think ambiguity is a very powerful element of serious theological thinking and rhetorically forceful writing.

    • Hi Craig,
      In my opinion, I don’t think Sonja is making any sort of argument about the morality or immorality of abortion in any particular circumstance; rather, I think she is trying to diagnose why it is that the concern so many catholics feel for the unborn is not carried over into concern for various classes of the already-born. She is doing this so that it can be corrected.

      • I accept that I have misunderstood the emphases of Sonja’s claim.

        Megan–It is good to talk to you again, but I must heartily reject any implication that I do not view abortion as a tragedy (or, perhaps more specifically, that I may possibly view abortion with an all-or-nothing approach). In my own writing and in conversations about others over this topic, such a view is far from the case.

        Katie–Thank you for your comment about Sonja’s main purpose. As a final comment, however, I would like to state why, in light of your response, I took the approach that I did:

        I think the the statements about Life issues that the Church released during the reign of John Paul II were extraordinarily beautiful (especially Evangelium Vitae). In many ways, I believe that the complexity of this document is not understood properly by the Faithful to whom it is addressed. As a result, the content of this message is simplified in many of the ways that Sonja has pointed out, namely in that the concept of innocence is distorted, and in that uncharitable type-casting of marginalized individuals often prevents an authentic interaction with a human being. I support Sonja in saying that these types of simplifications are dangerous and oppressive.

        As Sonja has written, she is “not a fan” of Evangelium Vitae. As she has not gone into which parts she finds worth criticizing, I will not speculate. For my part, however, I believe that what Evangelium Vitae proposes as a vision for the value of human life actually constitutes a viable theological foundation for the solution to the problems threatening human life today. I pray that God will give me the strength to work out, as one aspiring to be a theologian, how this foundation can be a useful lens for viewing the problems concerning human life in the 21st century, especially in the very difficult case of a family that is experiencing pregnancy complications that could potentially result in the taking of the mother’s life (I have my ideas about this, but I do not think I should catalogue them here).

        So, in my opinion, whereas Sonja was drawing attention to the fact that Catholics misunderstand the language that they use to talk about this very difficult topic, I wanted to go a step further and say that the resources for addressing that very problem can already be found to a surprisingly large extent in the existing theology of our Church.

      • I was referring to the loss of life of women as a tragedy (not abortion) in the instances in which the Church teaches that it’s better for women to die than end a pregnancy. And to be completely honest, that is the teaching. We can couch it as “difficulty of a family experiencing pregnancy problems,” but the teaching is that it is better that a woman should die than have an abortion (or to have used contraception if the difficulty were known about in advance). And I apologize if I implied you were getting at an “all-or-nothing approach” as I certainly have no idea what you think beyond what was written– when I said that I meant that this kind of case carves out a space in a larger conversation, not merely the one taking place here. That being said, it seems like my attempt to carve out that space has gone unnoticed with your focus in your response to me still remaining on the loss of the fetus’ life, seemingly blind to the other tragedies involved.

      • Quick note: I think that Megan was talking not about the tragedy of abortion, but about the tragedy of “women who have the choice to either die or be excommunicated by their faith tradition.”

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    • Thanks, Halden. I enjoyed reading that. You say that violence is problematic because it falls on the human; by “human” do you mean “human person” specifically? What do you think about the line of argumentation that deals with trying to figure out whether the fetus is a person or not? I still don’t know what I think about that.

  5. I really enjoyed the post, Sonja, and I think that the pro-life movement needs this shift in rhetoric. Its blinders are exactly the areas where the living seem less than innocent, and you very effectively pointed that out.

    The next question is how this rhetorical change can be made practically, and I would think that the better approach would not be to remove “innocent” from talk about fetuses but to expand the connotations of innocence in this moral situation to the marginalized others we’re called to serve. Ultimately, I think that this kind of shift can only be an inside job within the anti-abortion movement to make its talk and its fundamental convictions more consistent with the Gospel. The million-dollar question is how grace will guide that one.

    • Thanks, Michael! I think I’m with you on expanding the connotations of innocence. But then I also want to do something that would trouble the connection between deserving life and being innocent.

      • Exactly: for love is not that we loved God first, but that He loved us while we were/are still sinners.

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  7. Hi Sonja and all:

    I’m coming to this unpardonably late, but since various questions were raised as to material vs. formal unjust aggressors and the like, I thought a glance at the history of Catholic moral theology on that topic might help.

    THE SELF-DEFENSE ARGUMENT

    Thomas Aquinas on self-defense and “double-effect” (duplex effectus): An act’s species is from the end intended, so it is not “homicide” if one intends to “save one’s own life” in self-defense, but ends up killing an unjust aggressor as an effect that is praeter intentionem (unintentional). Still, it is “rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end” (ST II-II.64.7), and is “homicide” if “due care” in trying to avoid the killing is not exercised (ST II-II.64.8)

    SELF-DEFENSE AND ABORTION:

    In the 14th & 15th centuries the question came up of whether abortions “to save the life of the mother” might be an exercise in just such self-defense. It took various forms:

    FETUS AS AN INNOCENT THIRD PARTY:

    Sylvester of Ferrara said that as a horseman fleeing an unjust aggressor may unavoidably trample a child as an innocent third party in a narrow alleyway, so a mother may “defense herself” from an illness or medical complication even if the fetus as a non-aggressor gets killed in the process. Antoninus of Corduba replied that a horseman may licitly flee in this way only if he tries to side-step the child; he cannot directly “run him down” and still have taken “due care” to avoid killing. The opinion was generally accepted.

    [Aside: I would put it this way. Suppose a woman is deathly allergic to bees. Unknown to her, her child is running toward her, drawing an angry hive of bees directly toward her. Suppose a third-part is out of shouting distance & so cannot vocally warn her, but he does have a gun. It does not follow that the third party can gun down the child so as to “save the life of the mother” by preventing the bees’ fatal sting. Or vice-versa. As Philippa Foot put it: “We do not think that we can directly kill one innocent person to rescue another”]

    FETUS AS MATERIAL BUT NOT FORMAL AGGRESSOR

    This first shows up in Thomas Sanchez (1550-1610) who said that if pregnancy endangers the mother the fetus is is a a “material” or “quasi-aggressor” which may be cut away, rather like a diseased body part. He said this would fit the criteria which “St. Thomas required in reference to killing an unust aggressor in self-defense”. This might with widespread rejection.

    DIRECT-INDIRECT ABORTION DISTINCTION:

    John of Naples & Antoninus of Corduba came up with “direct-indirect” language. Antoninus introduced the distinction between “principally salutary” vs. “principally lethal” means as follows:

    1) principally salutary/healthful (de se salutifera) means refer to: treatments immediately, directly, and primarily conducive to the health of the mother; e.g., bleeding, bathing, healing potions, painkillers, etc. These are “indirectly lethal” in cases where a fetus is killed.

    2) principally lethal (de se mortifera) means refer to: treatments which are immediately, directly, and principally conducive to the death of fetus, e.g., poisonous drugs, striking the woman, etc. These are “directly lethal” in killing the fetus. The claim was that no action was allowed in justice against a non-aggressor that is principaliter mortifera (primarily lethal vs. healthful). This met with general acceptance, and eventually became known as the distinction between direct and indirect abortion.

    CAESARIAN TO “SAVE THE SOUL” OF THE FETUS?

    Many around this time used identical arguments to the “material unjust aggressor” one to suggest that a dying mother might have an emergency – and doubtless lethal – Caesarian performed on her to rescue the baby & baptize the baby before it died, saving it from eternal loss. As with earlier arguments, the mother was construed as a “material aggressor” in that a viable baby would die due to her own body’s sickness or dying process. For the exact same reason direct-indirecting reasoning that abortion to “save the life of the mother” was rejected, a lethal C-section to “save the soul of the child” was rejected.

    CRANIOTOMY/UNJUST AGGRESSION REPRISE

    Between 1850-1902 there was a debate over craniotomy as collapsing skull of the child to complete delivery in an abortion to save the mother’s life. Those in favor said fetus in this case an “unjust aggressor” (in material sense), so that “self-defense” was licit even if the fetus perished non-intentionally. But in 1884, 1889, and 1895 , the Magisterium rejected craniotomy on the grounds. Laparotomy was said to be licit if provision was made for both the mother & fetus.

    CANCEROUS UTERUS & ECTOPIC PREGNANCIES

    There was a consensus that it was legitimate to remove the cancerous uterus to save mother’s life, with the indirect effect that child may die. Simlar direct-indirect thought was applied to ectopic pregnancies. It was argues that while a doctor may not directly & so kill a nonviable fetus, the pregnant tube was itself a pathological organ, and thus could be removed to save the mother’s life. The death of the fetus was an indirect effect, since the object of the surgery was the tube itself, not the fetus.

    VATICAN II: GAUDIUM ET SPES

    Gaudium et Spes v. 27 said that “any type” of direct abortion was, along with various evils like slavery, infanticide, and genocide, “an abominable crime” that could never be done and constituted an “insult to the Creator”.

    I apologize for the length; but I thought a glance at the development of doctrine on this question might be of use. Greetings to everyone now beyond the orbit of South Bend!

    David

    • Thanks for this, David. I hadn’t realized that the question of materially unjust aggression went as far back as the 14th/15th centuries!

  8. Pingback: Why I Do Not Support the (so-called) March for Life « Dating God

  9. Hi Sonja,

    By mere chance, or perhaps by divine providence, I stumbled upon your blog today.

    Born and raised in Wisconsin, USA, I personally have logged up 37 years of religious life, 25 years as a hard working missionary priest among the campesinos and indigenous peoples of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua and now 31 years and still going strong in our ecclesiastically sacramental Catholic matrimony with two daughters. I still joyfully participate in our Sunday evening Eucharistic Celebrations with our local little faith community.
    Now at age 84 and only working mornings at computer accounting, just to keep the rice and beans on the table and our internet connection paid, I do a lot on-line reading and blogging, especially at NCRtoday.
    With your great title, “Women in Theology”, I hope that perhaps you can do me the tremendous favor to either confirm or suggest changes in my current opinions.
    We know that “The Catholic Church” has wisely never defined the MOMENT WHEN A HUMAN PERSON IS PRESENT in a zygote, embryo or fetus, since as Bernard Haring, the now deceased “Prince of Catholic Moralists” said so clearly “that decision is not in the competence of the Church.” And since ONLY HUMAN PERSONS have HUMAN RIGHTS, frequently we meet with a “conflict of rights” between the human life in the womb and the surely certain human person of the mother or other persons involved in the situation. International modern bio-ethics today, tends to indicate that only up until the 12th week of pregnancy is there “sufficient substantive density” to support the reality of “a human person”. (cf. the works by highly recognized Spanish moralist Padre Benjamin Forcano) . According to traditional RCC moral theology, there is sufficient accord among moralists to make this a “solid probable opinion” that can be safely followed. That means that for a just cause “the surely certain rights” of the mother can trump the “only probable rights” of what is only probably a human person before the 12th week of gestation, in cases such as pregnancy from sexual violation, danger of death to mother, and medical situations that endanger the mother, etc.

    I consider that we are justified in holding that “Humanae Vitae” of Pope Paul VI is neither contained in the “depositum fidei” nor was it obviously ever “received as reflecting a universal truth held by the People of God the world around” and so, lacking both essential conditions, it is hardly an infallible teaching of the Catholic Church. The “sexual-biological opinions “ presented as “Catholic doctrine” by the USA bishops and even some voices from the Vatican, — beg the question by equating “human life” with “human person” and “baby” and seem to be just more of what good moralists today call a “creeping infallibility” that these people pretend to bestow upon their meager opinions.
    Once you factor in the rights of other persons, then obviously you have to look for a solid objectively acceptable base for taking action. You may use your own personal private “belief” in your own personal private case, and even might be “conscience bound” to do so. But in order to resolve the case of a conflict of rights, YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO IMPOSE YOUR OWN PERSONAL PRIVATE BELIEF UPON ANOTHER PERSON. This gets to seriously involve justice: e.g. here a few of the far too common occurrences in the various cultures in our Mestizo America in which I happen to move daily: 1. An eleven year old girl child becomes pregnant by her own father, or her step-father, her uncle or her half-brother etc. — the sin of “incest”. After her menses skips a month the mother of the child comes to you and asks for advice. The certain rights of the girl child to have a proper “childhood” and the health of her “just developing female body ”trump” the only probable rights of the only probable human person forced into her “child-womb” since 4 weeks previously.
    2. Forced sexual violations in many of our common situations of military imposition, which is a common practice in today’s battle fields, e.g. Africa, Iraq, etc., etc., etc. 3 Forced violation by abusive “husbands” under influence of alcohol and drugs, etc. etc.
    4. Common rape where the victim of the abuse has the certain right to resist the onslaught of the criminal during the act and after the act if and when a pregnancy becomes evident. 5. The many medical cases involving the certain rights of the mother in relation to the only probable rights of the probable human person prior to its 12th week of gestation.
    The list could go on and on. But the point is: in a conflict of rights we can not impose our own personal, private “beliefs” on others in such a way as to limit their human rights.

    Sonja, Please forgive my long windedness. I had been “out of studies” for about 50 years, so that now when I read articles and especially the commentaries bogged after the articles, I wonder to myself if I have wandered too far off from modern moral theology. And since I have always had much confidence in the opinions of women, more so if they claim to be “Women in Theology”, I confidently await your objective opinion.
    Un abrazo,

    Justiniano de Managua el 23 de enero, 2012

    • Hi Justiniano,
      Yes, I would say that your views are in line with a major tradition within Catholic moral theology. It’s not the “dominant” tradition today (not since JPII became Pope), but it is certainly held by a number of theologians. I think, for example, of Charles Curran and of Haering (as you mentioned).

  10. Thanks Sonja,
    I hardly feel in the category of Charlie Curran, much less Bernard Haring, but it’s always consoling for me to know that at least I still am considered within the correct ball game.

    As for JPII – blessed according to BenXVI – that’s another story. JPII of the Vatican and Ronald Reagan of Washington were the two loudest lobbyists and generous contributors in $$$ and prestige to “scotch” our young hope-filled Nicaraguan Popular Sandinist Revolution during the 1980’s.. JPII visited us in 1981. Millions flocked to see and hear him. Our people “have no hair on their tongue.” “El Papa nos cagó” was their verdict. (“The Pope sh.t upon us.”) R. Reagan simply embargoed us, bombed us, and during 5 years caused the military deaths of more than 30,000 of our best young people, and war damages to our infra-structure that the International Court of the Hague, calculated in 1986 as a “USA war debt” to Nicaragua for US$17 billion. But since Nicaragua has no military power, that little debt was just left hanging in the air. But that’s another story.
    Un abrazo,
    Justiniano de Managua el 24 de enero 2012

  11. Pingback: Tough Cases, Women’s Lives, and the Pro-Life Movement « WIT

  12. Pingback: Woman dies after declining cancer treatments to save the life of her unborn child - Page 22

  13. Pingback: Abortion, Newtown, and the Feast of the Holy Innocents « WIT

  14. My understanding of abortion in all my life has always been that in certain circumstances is not wrong for women to abort. Indeed, it may be even wrong for someone to not abort in certain circumstances, liket the recent indian woman who died in Ireland. So you could call me as a moderate pro-choice, or at least someone who is in between pro-life and pro-choice. I’m not those that criticize women for aborting because I understand why they do it. However, you write:

    “Second, and of more interest to me in this post, is that formal innocence is not usually what we mean when we talk about a fetus being innocent. Rather, we mean innocent in the sentimental way that we call adorable animals and babies innocent (Augustine notwithstanding). We mean they are helpless, pitiable, and not [yet] mean beings who can insult us or harm us–and how could you be so cold-hearted that you’d kill such a creature? This kind of rhetoric automatically juxtaposes the innocent fetus with other kinds of people whom society (and a large portion of the pro-life demographic, judging from voting statistics) does not usually call innocent and finds generally threatening or disgusting: enemy soldiers, death row inmates, and worst of all in this discourse, the women who seek abortions in the first place. It is no coincidence, in my opinion, that the pro-life movement is often criticized for failing to care about just this kind of life outside the womb.”

    I think you are wrong to compare fetuses to enemy soldiers. I oppose war in all it’s forms (except maybe in a very extreme circumstance where there is no other way), however enemy soldiers may be people who either are defending themselves because they think that it’s no other way or people who are attacking for evil purposes or intentions. Even if it’s the former, they are doing evil even if it’s not intentional, and it’s the reason why we don’t and shouldn’t do wars anyway. As for death-row inmates, they are there because they were guilty of something and they aren’t indefensable, pitiable creatures. So I think you are doing a false analogy. As well as a false categorization, since, while maybe not your intention, you seem to imply that pro-lifers are generally okay with war, life sentences and the death penalty, and while that’s the case with many Republicans, it is certainly not the case for everyone who considers abortion evil (at least in some cases). As I said, I oppose war, as well as life sentences and the death penalty because they are not fair.

  15. Pingback: On Guns, Fetuses, and “Pro-Life” Hypocrisy | The Feminist Wire

  16. Pingback: What constitutes "innocence"?

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