There must be another way: the Phoenix abortion case
Since last Sunday, a snippet from the first reading at Mass, from Sirach (15:15-20), has been echoing in my mind. Let me present the short passage as we heard it in church, but with my emphasis added:
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Before man are life and death, whichever he chooses shall be given him.
Immense is the wisdom of the LORD; he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.
The eyes of God see all he has made; he understands man's every deed.
No man does he command to sin, to none does he give strength for lies.
“No man does he command to sin.” Those words bear a special relevance, I think, to the continuing debate over the status of St. Joseph Hospital in Phoenix. Bishop Olmsted took disciplinary action against the hospital and its administrators after an abortion was performed there. The hospital and its supporters (notably including the Catholic Health Association) insisted that the abortion was justified, because they had no viable alternative that would save the mother’s life.
Since I am not a doctor, I don’t know other alternative there might have been. I am not acquainted with the particular circumstances of the case (not that a thorough briefing would help much, given my ignorance of medicine), and I do not know what other procedure the doctors might have followed. But the reading from Sirach assures me that there was some other approach: some way to try to address the mother’s urgent medical problems without harming her child. God does not put us in situations in which injustice—in this case, the shedding of innocent blood—is the best available option. “No man does he command to sin.”
The doctors in Phoenix said that the mother’s fragile condition made it impossible for her to survive a continued pregnancy. If she died, her unborn child would die as well. So it was better, they reasoned, that one person should die, rather than two. Better one death than many. (Does that logic sound familiar? It should.)
The moral calculus involved in taking one life in order to save another has a superficial appeal. That’s why there is so much public pressure for approval of embryonic stem-cell research. The prospect looks even more acceptable if the person to be sacrificed was doomed to death anyway—as the baby apparently was in Phoenix, and the frozen embryos are in the refrigerators where they are warehoused. But look at the moral equation again, from the perspective of the victim. Would it be fair for someone to kill you, in order to save me?
I don’t think so. That’s why I have signed a medical-procedures form, giving instructions to health-care personnel, stating that I never want to accept any medical treatment that requires the death of another human being. That means that I don’t want medicines derived from embryos and (a subject we’ll take up later) I don’t want vital organs transplanted from someone who has been conveniently declared “brain dead" in time for the transplant surgery.
Doctors are often forced to make tough decisions: to amputate a limb rather than risk a life; to undertake a risky operation that the patient might not survive; to treat one urgent case in the emergency room and let another wait. In all those cases there may be some grave harm. Patients might die as a result of the doctors’ decisions—even if those decisions were right! But in all such cases the doctors are doing their best to save lives, subject to the constraints of the moment. In the Phoenix decision, on the other hand, the doctors made a deliberate decision to take a life.
There was another way. There must have been another way. It may have been difficult. It may have been risky. It may not have succeeded. But it would have allowed the doctors to say with confidence that they had done their utmost to save all of their patients. It would have allowed the bishop to say proudly that St. Joseph Hospital was a Catholic institution. And it would have allowed the world to see that the Catholic approach to health-care is not a coldly utilitarian approach, but an effort motivated by love, by a passionate respect for human life, and by a faithful confidence that God does not put his children in circumstances from which there is no righteous way to escape. “No man does he command to sin.”
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