On the heels of the nun who was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for saving a woman’s life comes this post about how good Catholic medical care basically involves crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. At least when it comes to women.
But the position of the church is actually born from humility, from daring to believe that God knows what he is doing. The church is not blind; she sees with eyes that are not fixated on the corporeal. Her perceived narrowness of perspective is actually so broad, it reaches into mystery. Far from being unnatural, she remains supernatural. She dares to trust that God’s plans really are “of fullness, not of harm.”
Although details are scarce, we are told there was an “urgency” to this 11-week pregnancy, and that there was a “nearly certain” risk of death to the mother. “If there had been a way to save the pregnancy and still prevent the death of the mother, we would have done it,” the hospital told The Arizona Republic. “We are convinced there was not.”
The adverb is the bugaboo. A “nearly certain, risk” is where reason, faith and ethics collide. Man trusts what man knows (in this case science and human flesh) and because he likes that illusion of control, he ignores the qualifier and calls the risk “certain.” It is easier to move on a pure certainty than on a “near” one that muddles everything up.
Having subjected these difficult, seemingly no-win situations to serious and prayerful thought, the Catholic Church gleans that—in obedience to God—this is where trust, that most difficult thing, must enter into the picture. She teaches that as we are all loved into being (and precious in the sight of God) a mother’s life, and the life of her baby, are of equal value; therefore each circumstance—and all available treatments and possible outcomes— must be individually considered.
Where both mother and child will surely perish—as in the case of an ectopic pregnancy threatening to burst a fallopian tube, or a uterine cancer or hemorrhage necessitating the whole removal of the uterus—the death of the child is a secondary (and unintentional) result of the life-saving treatment. This “indirect” abortion is made distinct from a “direct” (and therefore illicit) abortion, by intention.
This description is kind of muddled, so let me clear it up: If you have to take out a woman’s entire uterus or remove her entire fallopian tube, and there’s a fetus or a fertilized egg in there, that’s ok. But if a woman has an ectopic pregnancy that threatens to burst her fallopian tube — a pregnancy that will never result in a baby — you cannot, under Catholic doctrine, simply terminate the pregnancy. You have to remove the whole fallopian tube, so that the death of the embryo is merely incidental. It is possible, in many ectopic pregnancies, to remove the embryo without removing the tube. It’s preferable, in most cases, because it helps to preserve the woman’s fertility and, you know, doesn’t remove her entire fallopian tube unnecessarily. Catholic doctrine requires doing harm to the woman’s body if she wants to not die. Similarly, if a woman has uterine cancer, you can remove the whole uterus with the fetus in it so that the death of the fetus is incidental, but a doctor could not, for example, remove the fetus in order to operate and preserve the woman’s uterus. Some have even interpreted Catholic doctrine to say that you can’t be treated for cancer if you’re pregnant and the treatment would harm the fetus. Even if that harm is incidental.
So what happens when it’s clear that the woman is going to die if she remains pregnant, and that the only way to save her life is to end the pregnancy? Well… since you can never be totally 100% sure that someone is going to die (God could save them!), you kinda just cross your fingers and hope for the best.
Putting it more simply: aborting the child results in one certain death—not a “near” event, but a sure-thing; what the world might call a “win-lose.” Allowing the child to live, and supporting the mother with all due diligence throughout the pregnancy may result in the death of one, (another “win-lose”) or both, (a “lose-lose”) but because of that qualifier, “nearly,” and because even the best doctors cannot wholly insure or predict any outcome, there is also the possibility that no one will die, that both mother and child will live. A “win-win.”
If the church errs, she errs on the side of life. If she regrets the necessity of a “win-lose” in the case of an indirect abortion, she rejects outright the irrevocable “win-lose” of a direct-abortion in order to dwell in the possibility of a win-win.”
The church doesn’t err on the side of life. She errs on the side of stupidity or at least willful ignorance. Can anyone ever know with 100% certainty what will happen in the future? No. But if I take a flying leap off of the Empire State Building, I can predict with a fairly high degree of certainty that I will die. I mean, who knows, maybe I’ll just get hurt really badly — stranger things have happened! But death is the predictable and almost-certain outcome. Which is why they have those nets surrounding the observation deck.
Kind of how if pregnancy is putting so much stress on your body that your heart has stopped working, you are probably going to die unless the stressor is removed. I mean, who knows, maybe all of a sudden your heart will start to function again because of magic — stranger things have happened! But death is the predictable and almost-certain outcome. Which is why doctors estimate the probability of death or bodily harm, and have medical procedures, including abortion, that can be performed. They’re life-saving safety nets.
Yes, there have been people who have been told “You are going to die if X doesn’t happen” who, even in the absence of X happening, still lived. But those stories are considered “miracles” exactly because they are incredibly rare. And you know, if individuals want to cross their fingers and pray instead of seeking treatment, that is totally their prerogative. No pregnant woman, told she will or may die if she continues the pregnancy, should be forced to have an abortion. But it’s totally unconscionable to project those theological rules onto any person who walks into a public hospital, just because that hospital is affiliated with the Catholic church. I want better medical care than “Well, let’s hope for the best!”
Trying circumstances such as these are an invitation to ponder all we do not know. We believe that God wants both mother and child to live, but accept the possibility of other plans and even other—to us shocking—ideas, such as this one: What if that was all the life the mother was meant to have?
That unthinkable question, asked in light of the promise of Jeremiah 29:11, is where, for Christians, the rubber may well meet the road. Can we accept and wholly trust that God “has a plan” for each of us, if only we do not impede his access into our lives? We are meant never to forestall God’s possibilities.
Ah yes, the mother was supposed to die, and by interfering we ruined God’s plan.
… so why do we have medical care at all?
Really. I’m not asking that disingenuously. If the idea is that God has a plan for all of us, and that we should not interfere with it, then why do we try to cure cancer? Why do we set broken limbs, or perform emergency surgery, or perform C-sections? Why do we allow blood transfusions? Why were pro-lifers, including Catholics, up in arms about Terri Schiavo being removed from life support? If medical care should come down to faith and trusting in God, then why do we try to maintain life when, in a natural state, the person would die?
The argument, I’m guessing, is that God also gave us reason and intellectual curiosity so that we could discover ways to heal ourselves and maintain our existence. Great. We also have the ability to recognize the probability of death and act accordingly; we have the ability to see that, in the case of the woman in Arizona, hard-line rules about life and death result in horrific conclusions, and when there is a way to preserve one life instead of allowing two lives to end, we should preserve the one.
So why is it only God’s “plan” when it involves a woman dying because of pregnancy?
Our society loves time-travel stories. We love to tease the notion that one change in the time-continuum can have drastic and far-reaching consequences, even for peripheral characters, and for generations. A quantum slip, and the whole world may be forever altered.
But we never wonder (and indeed, some will hate me for daring to do so, here): what happens, within that continuum, when a woman who perhaps, in God’s plan, was supposed to die, instead chooses to kill the baby and remain alive?
If we believe that God has indeed has loved us into being, and for a purpose, what happens when the purpose is thwarted? Suddenly everyone in the mother’s world, even those on the periphery, may see their lives tilted away from the original “plan” God had for them. Perhaps lessons that need learning go unlearned. Perhaps a gadget that needs inventing in order to feed millions in the third world must be invented later. Perhaps a child meant to grow up formed by the knowledge that her own mother loved her so much that she risked death for her is not born at all, and a love that needs manifesting and expressing, goes undiscovered, and unshared.
Or perhaps the fetus dies anyway and four children are orphaned. Which would have been the case if the woman in Arizona were denied an abortion.
A good friend of mine would not be here if her mother had not had an abortion before she was born. I know two beautiful little girls who would be here if their mother had not had an abortion before they were born. Does God have no plan for them? Were they not meant to exist?
I would not be here if not for WWII, including the Holocaust. The same is true of many children and grandchildren of post-war European immigrants. Was the Holocaust part of God’s plan? Were millions of people supposed to have died so that we could be born?
Those are the paths down which the “God’s plan” argument will take you. Perhaps it was God’s plan for the woman in Arizona to go to a hospital where a brave nun happened to be the Catholic representative on the ethics board that day — after all, there are a lot of other people who would have apparently made a very different call. Maybe God set that up so that this woman could live. Maybe she has some greater purpose in her life that she has not yet fulfilled. Maybe God didn’t want her dead quite yet.
I’m not God, so I don’t know. But it’s awfully funny how the calls to “follow God’s plan” only seem to come up when “God’s plan” happens to conform to our own opinions and desires. I’m sure that’s a coincidence.
One of the first comments on the linked-to post sums up the position pretty well:
Well said. I think it is time to introduce our fellow Catholics to St. Gianna Molla. She died rather than abort her baby. That is the example to follow.
Did the Catholics involved in this abortion forget that we believe in heaven as a reality not a “gee I hope it’s true” dream, and we that believe that heaven is far better than this earthly life? Did they forget that death is not to be feared but rather welcomed as the attainment of our life long goal? These situations really show a complete lack of faith in the basics never mind a willful disregard of intellectual intergrity is the “ethical” decision making process.
God have mercy on us now that Catholic hospitals will perform an abortion an defend it.
The example to follow is to die rather than terminate a pregnancy. Ok. If that’s your preference, by all means, go for it. But your view that heaven is awesome and death should be welcomed as the attainment of our life-long goal? Not my view! And not the view that I want my medical professionals adhering to. Why even have hospitals, if that’s the viewpoint? Why have emergency rooms? Why attempt to treat diseases? Why not just manage pain and let patients die according to God’s plan, because heaven is awesome and we should all get there as soon as God calls for us?
At least be consistent. Heal or don’t heal. Preserve life or go with God when He starts pulling you over to the other side.
But if you aren’t going to heal patients? If you are going to say that getting to heaven is the ultimate goal and so death should be welcomed? If you’re going to make pregnant women a special class who do not deserve to have their lives preserved, because maybe that’s part of God’s plan? Then you should not be in the business of providing medical care.
Again: If your individual religious belief is that God has a plan and you would rather die than have an abortion or receive a blood transfusion or be treated for cancer or whatever else, go for it. But don’t demand that the rest of us adhere. Don’t assume that your personal preferences and beliefs should be projected onto everyone else, and should influence the care that they receive.
- Nun excommunicated for allowing dying patient to have an abortion by Jill May 20, 2010
- Fetuses First by Jill February 23, 2010
- Pro-Choice Congressmen More Likely to Have Slutty Daughters by Jill June 18, 2007
- Olga Reyes, victim of “pro-life” politics by Jill November 8, 2007
- South Dakota bill would allow the killing of abortion providers as “justifiable homicide” by Jill February 15, 2011