Adventures in Double Effect

Faithful Catholics have been so worn down by fighting fundamental heresies taught by bishops that we sometimes shun intrareligious dialogue — that is, talking to sincere but confused fellow Catholics with whom we don’t agree. And that’s a mistake, since many issues really are complex, and we might in fact be confused ourselves. Let’s take the recent case of Sr. Margaret McBride, whose bishop announced she had incurred excommunication latae sententiae for allowing the abortion of a child whose development threatened his ailing mother’s life (Sister McBride was a member of the ethics committee at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where the abortion took place). While our instincts, probably correct, are to send Phoenix Bishop Olmsted some Harry and David baskets with “Attaboy!” notes of encouragement, the secondary implications of this case raise real questions worth debating. Since I’m no moral theologian, I can’t pretend to speak with authority here. Indeed, I won’t speak at all, but will eavesdrop on a debate between two old friends, Franz and Rayne:

Franz: Don’t get me wrong. From what I’ve seen of nuns since 1970 — except the ones in habits — I’ll pretty much rubber-stamp any bishop’s decision to excommunicate one. How many radical feminists with M.A.s in Jungian analysis who look like Lou Costello in drag does the Church really need? I reckon we could get along with . . . seven. The rest can go become facilitators for “Women Who Run with the Wolves” seminars.

Rayne: And I suppose you spend a lot of time teaching poor children and working free at hospitals for the indigent?

Franz: I pay 40 percent of my income at gunpoint to fund all that, so I reckon I gave at the IRS office. My charitable contributions go to buying fiddleback chasubles and trying to legally restrict certain activities that violate the natural law.

Rayne: Such as?

Franz: Pretty much everything in the platform of the Democratic Party.
Rayne: Including abortion.
Franz: That’s at the top of the list. But this case is a little more confusing. I understand why there are no exceptions for rape and incest, but I thought the Church allowed doctors to intervene when a mother’s life (not her “health”) really is at stake.
Rayne: You may never directly, intentionally kill an unborn child.
Franz: Right.
Rayne: Just as you can’t purposely slaughter civilians. But you can bomb a city with armaments factories, while regretting the loss of civilian life, which you try to minimize.
Franz: Kind of hard to manage with nuclear weapons. That’s why I’m glad we’re developing pinpoint-accurate conventional bombs. It’s like hiring a sniper instead of sending in a private with a flamethrower. Come to think of it, they’re offering sniper training down at the shooting range . . .
Rayne: You go on ahead. I need to watch The Real Housewives of New York City.
Franz: Well, the same way, I thought if a woman had a cancerous uterus, you could remove it even if she is pregnant — even if you know that the baby isn’t viable. But you have to make an effort to save both, even if it feels merely symbolic.
Rayne: If you use the word “mere” alongside “symbolic,” why bother promoting traditional liturgy? A valid clown Mass would do just as well.
Franz: Okay, point taken. So what happened with this Phoenix case? Did they not even try to save the baby?
Rayne: Not from what I can tell. They simply invoked the utilitarian argument, making the end justify the means.
Franz: So if Stalin really was going to create an earthly paradise, starving a few Ukrainians amounted to breaking some eggs to make an omelet. The only problem is that he was using the wrong kind of skillet.
Rayne: Precisely.
Franz: If the doctors at that Catholic hospital had removed the eleven-week fetus intact, and made a Quixotic effort to save it, would that have been morally acceptable?
Rayne: Maybe . . . But I’ve read somewhere that if the health problem is caused by the pregnancy itself, and not because of a diseased organ, that removing the fetus intact (knowing it won’t survive) is also wrong. I’m not sure there, though.
Franz: That’s where I get off the bus. If my wife were in that situation, I would try to follow the Church’s rules, including double effect, but my first concern would be saving the woman I love — not an unborn child I haven’t met yet.
Rayne: If even its parents won’t speak up for that child, shouldn’t someone? For instance, the Church?
Franz: Whatever. I wouldn’t trust any husband who disagreed with me.
Rayne: What if your wife disagreed?
Franz: Then I’d convince her.
Rayne: So you think Bl. Gianna Molla was wrong to sacrifice her life so her child could be born?
Franz: If she and her husband agreed, it was heroic. That’s why they’re canonizing her. You don’t canonize people for merely avoiding mortal sin. Martyrs are made saints because they went above and beyond. Or are you saying that Thomas More might have gone to hell for signing some stupid document then fleeing the country so he could denounce Henry VIII from exile? How can you be culpable for something you do at gunpoint?
Rayne: So you’re saying the right to self defense is absolute, even if it harms the innocent?
Franz: In most situations.
Rayne: Let’s figure out what they are. Pro-abortion grad students love to trot out this example: “What if you woke up in a private clinic, finding out you’d been kidnapped, and you’d have to spend nine months in a hospital bed, sharing your liver function with a famous violinist to keep him alive? After that, he’d be okay, and you could go home. And the violinist is unconscious, and innocent of the whole conspiracy.”
Franz: Right. The dumbest hypothetical ever to slip out of the brain of a philosophy professor. And that’s saying something.
Rayne: What’s your answer?
Franz: You have a perfect right to cut the tubes, punch the doctor in the face, and go home. You have incurred no obligation to that violinist, and his death isn’t your fault. It’s a secondary effect of you asserting your right to physical liberty. Unless . . .
Rayne: Unless what?
Franz: Unless you’d signed up for a “Lend Your Liver to a Famous Violinist” raffle, and you’ve willingly taken the chance that you might have to spend nine months that way . . .
Rayne: Which is akin to the chance one takes of pregnancy in having sex. Very nice. There’s just one problem. What about pregnancies resulting from rape?
Franz: That’s always a tough case when you’re making legal arguments. It will be hard to convince people to pass any pro-life law without some narrow rape exception.
Rayne: Forget about law and politics. Morally, do you have the right to abort a pregnancy resulting from rape?
Franz: My gut says no, and so does the Church, but if I grant that point, then do I have to stay tied up to that violinist? Or here’s another hypothetical: Let’s say a mentally handicapped kid — who’s innocent, not culpable — is coming at me with a butcher’s knife, and the only way I can save my life is to shoot him? Do I have to let him kill me, to spare the innocent?
Rayne: But then your life would be at stake, not nine months of your liberty.
Franz: Okay, so what if he were holding me prisoner, and I knew that in nine months his parents were coming back from Samoa, then they’d set me free. Could I shoot him if that’s what was necessary to escape?
Rayne: I think the most Christ-like, heroic thing would be to wait.
Franz: But would it be a sin if I shot my way out of there?
Rayne: No.
Franz: So what’s the difference between allowing a child who was implanted in you by violent force to make use of your body for nine months, and “loaning” your body to the comatose violinist? Or staying in the mentally retarded kid’s basement? Are we going to turn into Muslims and treat women like “vessels” we use for baby storage?
Rayne: You’re finally getting to the heart of the question, the thing that makes abortion so much different, and in a strange way worse, than knifing some random stranger. And it points to the reason that “ethicists” have to come up with all these crackpot analogies, none of which perfectly fits the situation. Pregnancy isn’t some weird contingency, like a music-lovers’ conspiracy or a knife-wielding child. It’s not a “hard case” like a pair of Siamese twins who share a spleen. It’s the most ordinary thing in the world. It’s almost banal.
Franz: Clearly you aren’t pregnant.
Rayne: Touché. But when I hear feminists — and on the other side, some Catholic-mom drama queens — talk about pregnancy, sometimes they make it sound as if getting pregnant, carrying a child, and giving birth to it alive were the most astonishing sacrifice any human being could ever make. Like Joan of Arc going to the stake.
Franz: When in fact . . . ?
Rayne: It’s something mammals do. You know, alley cats and elephants and monkeys at the zoo. It’s how we reproduce the species — and yes, it involves some sacrifice and risk, but here’s the thing: It’s how you and I got into this world. It’s how that poor, pregnant rape victim got into this world, too. Our mothers risked their health, and perhaps their lives, to let us be born. They might have been really miserable about being pregnant. Their situations might even have been desperate. Maybe they smoked and drank through all nine months, but there was one thing they wouldn’t do: Kill us in the womb. Perhaps they just didn’t want to be guilty of murder, or maybe they felt they owed it to the human race — they were paying forward the fact that they weren’t aborted themselves.
Franz: There can be heroism in that.
Rayne: But it is no different in kind than men working in dangerous places (oil rigs, coal mines, public schools) to support their families. Or men going off to war. That’s precisely why it’s so obscene to send women into combat — they already are designed to be at a certain amount of risk for the sake of the species.
Franz: That’s true. Thank God pregnancy in the West isn’t as risky as it used to be.
Rayne: Not physically. At least for the mother. Much riskier for the child. And morally risky for the parents, who now are subject to a constant, appalling temptation. At the slightest sign of illness, or fetal abnormality, they have doctors clustering around trying to “terminate” their baby. There are too many “wrongful birth” suits if mom gives birth to a handicapped kid.
Franz: Liberals are so humane. They force us to make everything handicapped-accessible — from banana stands to NASCAR crew pits. They want special education funded by the taxpayer for every condition from autism to ennui. And then they do the math: If all these kids get out of the womb alive, they’re going to be too damn expensive. So they try to intercept them before they acquire all those pricey “rights.” You want to see the liberal future? It’s a really fancy wheelchair lift, faced by an empty wheelchair.
Rayne: And your Tea Party future?
Franz: A high curb, faced by an old-fashioned wheelchair, with a real live person sitting in it. Like a real American, he’ll be complaining. Probably using his Blackberry to call a lawyer . . .



John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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