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An old friend of mine is now working for a pro-life organization. As children, we were Catholic homeschoolers from the same hometown, attending many of the same co op classes and homeschooling events, so as a result we used to be very close. I even considered her my best friend for many years, but we’ve drifted apart as I became increasingly liberal and she attended a strict Catholic college and became increasingly conservative. We’re still Facebook friends though.
As a result, I see a lot of posts from her that I’m pretty sure are for her work, encouraging people to come to pro-life events and participate in online pro-life campaigns. Sometimes though, she posts articles that are just things she’s particularly interested in–some of them still relating to the pro-life movement. It’s these that tend to spark my attention. I’ve shared some of them on this blog to write about them in the past. This blog has been a great outlet for me to engage with the ideas she’s sharing without getting into an argument on Facebook (we all know how that usually goes). I’ve been in a few arguments with her online and I finally decided that we were both basically getting nowhere. She hasn’t grasped a lot of the concepts I find vitally important for modern sexual ethics (consent being a big one we argued about), and we were basically talking over each other rather than conducting a productive dialogue. She didn’t have any new ideas to offer me either, having been raised with the same background as I was. I knew what she was going to say, and I also knew that many of the “facts” she might spout at me would be from the pool of inaccurate information touted by pro-life activists. So when she shared this article about Catholic teaching concerning tubal pregnancies, I decided to write about it here instead of getting into a heated argument.
First of all, the fact that she had shared that article at all piqued my interest. We had been part of a pro-life organization for teens in high school. (I was briefly president of this organization, I’m sorry to admit), and during that time, various pro-life activists would come in to teach us different “facts” about the issue. We would watch “documentaries” about abortion. We would join prayer groups that protested outside abortion clinics. We held our pro-life stance in much the same way that we held our religious faith. We knew we were right, and that others were wrong. We were only interested in the information that confirmed our bias.
One visitor in particular comes to mind. This guest speaker spoke about the various arguments people make in support of abortion, and how to refute them. There, for the first time, we were introduced to the argument that abortion sometimes needs to be performed “for the health and safety of the mother.” I don’t recall this speaker having any real credentials–no medical background what-so-ever–but she told us forcefully that there simply were no situations in which abortions were medically necessary. Furthermore, she claimed that carrying to term is always safer for the mother than aborting. I now know that neither of those things is true.
Ectopic (often called tubal) pregnancies are perhaps the strongest example of a situation in which ending the pregnancy is literally the only way for the woman to survive. An ectopic pregnancy occurs when the pregnancy happens somewhere other than the uterus, usually in one of the fallopian tubes while traveling the path it is supposed to take to get to the uterus. This is a life threatening medical condition. Furthermore, the treatment is removal of the pregnancy. That’s it. These pregnancies can end in miscarriage, but if that does not happen quickly enough, allowing a pregnancy to continue inside the fallopian tube leads to the tube rupturing fairly early in the pregnancy. Even the Catholics in the first article admit to that. I believe they said the fetus is at most 10 weeks old at the point of the anticipated rupture. That’s a little more than two months into the pregnancy. We do have a lot of ways of keeping premature infants alive, but at that point, the fetus is not viable. There’s no getting around that. A quick google search revealed that the record for shortest gestation for a surviving premature baby is 21 weeks and 5 days–more than twice the gestation time that is possible in these pregnancies.
So what do they suggest as a way to treat ectopic pregnancies? Keep in mind, this is an article in which a Catholic theologian is attempting to discern the church’s stance on something the church has never directly addressed. Here’s what they say on the matter:
A mother facing a tubal pregnancy risks imminent rupture of the fallopian tube. While the doctor would opt for the least risk and expense to the mother, all the options presented to her involve terminating the pregnancy. The mother, however, must respect both her life and that of her child. [emphasis mine]
There is no treatment available that can guarantee the life of both. [emphasis mine] The Church has moral principles that can be applied in ruling out some options, but she has not officially instructed the faithful as to which treatments are morally licit and which are illicit. Most reputable moral theologians, as discussed below, accept full or partial salpingectomy (removal of the fallopian tube), as a morally acceptable medical intervention in the case of a tubal pregnancy. [emphasis mine]
The author of this article goes on to admit that salpingectomy during a tubal pregnancy will terminate the fetus. In what is perhaps the most hilariously brilliant piece of mental gymnastics I’ve ever seen performed by a conservative activist, the author writes:
On one hand, there can be no direct attack on the child (direct abortion) to save the life of the mother. On the other hand, the life of the mother is equally valuable and she must receive appropriate treatment.[emphasis mine] It might be that the only available remedy saves the life of the mother but, while not a direct abortion, brings about the unintended effect of the death of the child. Morally speaking, in saving the life of the mother, the Church accepts that the child might be lost.
I literally laughed out loud when I read that. My friend has read this, and shared it. She knows just as well as I do that this goes against so many of the pro-life narratives we believed in with every fiber of our beings. Firstly, there’s the obvious fact that the author is admitting that sometimes ending a pregnancy is necessary to save the mother, which we were told was never true. Second, we often read narratives about women who chose to do things like forego cancer treatment in order to carry a pregnancy to term, knowing very well that this could lead to their own deaths. These women were celebrated for giving their lives for their unborn child. To the pro-life movement, that was praised as the right thing to do. This does not fit those narratives.
Third, and this is perhaps the best part, the writer is clearly trying very hard to find a surgery that can fix this problem but isn’t designed as an abortion procedure. To admit that a literal abortion using one of the processes currently used by abortion providers can be a necessary way to save someone’s life would be to admit that the church and the pro-life movement is wrong. So it’s not really an abortion, you see, because there is “no direct attack on the child.” Ha! That’s a bit like saying that if in your religion removing a finger is immoral, removing the whole arm isn’t because that’s not a direct attack on the finger. Of course removing an arm involves removing a finger. Why are we doing the more invasive thing when most of these pregnancies are so early that a pill could literally solve this problem? SURGERY IS ALWAYS RISKY. If you can solve a problem by taking a pill that we know works consistently, just take the goddamn pill.
Seeing as most of this information is contained in the original article itself, I was particularly curious to see my friend’s thoughts. She had commented when she shared the article, basically saying, “I don’t know how I feel about this. I guess if they made every effort to save the life of the baby too it would be OK.”
I want very badly to tell her I’m sorry, but it’s not going to make it at 10 weeks. In fact, it won’t have 10 weeks if the mother is to be saved–probably more like 7 or 8 , because the doctors will probably want to do the procedure before the tube ruptures. Click the above link if you want to see what a pregnancy looks like at that point. How viable does that look to you? I know my friend means well. I know that to her, that fetus is a human being who should be given all the chances to succeed in life. But that fetus will literally kill its mother before the pregnancy can continue far enough for it to become viable. This isn’t a save one or the other situation. The choice is between saving the mother and losing the child or losing both. It’s a terrible choice, but it’s a real one that people do face.
I like to think that after reading this, my friend is beginning to reevaluate the issue of abortion. Maybe at least in the case of ectopic pregnancies, she’ll conclude that it should be permitted. I know she probably thinks that’s a slippery slope. I used to think that myself. But abortion, like many of the big issues of our time, is not as simple or clear cut an issue as many like to make it out to be.
Do you have any thoughts on this? Feel free to leave a comment below. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.