Matthew Lu

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Abortifacients, emergency contraception, and terminating pregnancy

Matthew Lu
By Matthew Lu

April 14, 2014 (Public Discourse) - One of the more controversial issues in the Supreme Court case concerning Hobby Lobby is the company's claim that some of the “emergency contraceptives” demanded by Obamacare and the HHS mandate are actually “abortifacients.” The mainstream denial of this claim, supposedly backed by science, has largely revolved around a tendentious use of terms and a confusion about the real moral issues involved.

The defenders of emergency contraception, such as Guttmacher’s Sneha Barot, like to claim that

major medical organizations . . . as well as U.S. government policy, consider a pregnancy to have begun only when the entire process of conception is complete, which is to say after the fertilized egg has implanted in the lining of the uterus.

So, according to this putatively scientific definition, conception is distinct from fertilization and pregnancy occurs only with the actual implanting of the embryo in the uterine lining. According to this definition of conception, anything that interferes with any part of this process, whether a physical barrier, hormonal regulation of ovulation (or sperm production), the destruction of the embryo prior to implantation, or prevention of successful implantation, can intelligibly be called contraceptive.

Similarly, if pregnancy only occurs once conception is complete with implantation, then it is intelligible to claim that abortion is best understood as the termination of a pregnancy—not the destruction of an embryo. This also explains the medical practice of calling early miscarriage “spontaneous abortion.” Along these same lines, a method could only properly be called abortifacient insofar as it can cause (from the Latin facio) an abortion, which, in turn, is only possible after implantation.

These definitions allow emergency contraception advocates such as the Office of Population Research at Princeton University to make blanket assertions such as: “There is no point in a woman's cycle when the emergency contraceptive pills available in the United States would end a pregnancy once it has started” (emphasis added). Using the definitions of contraception and pregnancy given above, that statement could very well be true, even if the “contraceptive pills” in question directly kill a living embryo or prevent its implantation.

The rhetoric sounds good. Emergency contraception does not prevent “pregnancy,” therefore no “abortion” is involved, and no “abortifacient” methods are used.

However, this tendentious exercise in lexicography leads these advocates to confuse the real issue. Consider Sneha Barot’s claim that

if pregnancy were synonymous with the act of fertilization, all of the most effective reversible contraceptive methods—including oral contraceptive pills, injectables and IUDs—could be considered, at least theoretically, to be possible abortifacients.

Barot apparently takes it as obvious that these methods are not abortifacients, and therefore that pregnancy is not synonymous with fertilization. But, of course, whether some of these methods are abortifacients is exactly what’s in question. It doesn’t matter whether pregnancy is defined as synonymous with fertilization, but whether the methods in question directly kill an embryo or prevent its implantation.

The Principle of Double Effect

Ultimately, the moral question of abortion has little to do with the proper understanding of pregnancy at all. We can see this by reflecting on the fact that terminating a pregnancy is not evil per se. Any time a child is delivered by caesarian section, the pregnancy is terminated, but obviously there is no direct moral evil in that procedure. In fact, some pro-life moralists have even argued that some terminations of pregnancy are morally legitimate even if they result in the death of the child.

This line of argument makes use of the Principle of Double Effect (PDE), which broadly holds that an act is morally permissible insofar as it meets four conditions (this formulation is derived from David Oderberg): (1) the intended effect of the act must not be intrinsically evil (e.g., aiming at the death of an innocent); (2) any evil side effects of the act must be unintended (though they may be foreseen); (3) the good intended effect must be at least as causally direct as any unintended side effect (i.e., one cannot do evil so that good may come of it); finally, (4) the intended good must be proportionate to any unintended evils (i.e., the good must “outweigh” the evil).

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This method of moral reasoning has allowed some of these pro-life moralists to argue that in certain extreme circumstances it is morally permissible to terminate a pregnancy in a way that results in the death of the innocent child, so long as that death is not directly intended. Rarely, an embryo will implant within its mother’s body outside the uterus (an ectopic pregnancy). While there have recently been extremely rare cases of ectopic pregnancy that were safely brought to birth (through caesarian section), it had traditionally been considered a death sentence for both the mother and child. For these reasons, some adherents of PDE have argued that it is permissible to remove the child surgically from the mother (intact) even though this foreseeably results in the death of the child. Simultaneously, these same moralists argue that the use of a chemical abortifacient to destroy the embryo is impermissible.

They reason that the surgical removal of the intact child is a medical treatment directly intended to save the mother’s life. Killing the child is no part of that treatment (even as a means); were the technology available to save the child’s life that would certainly be done. So the child’s death is a foreseeable but unintended side effect of the surgery to treat the mother, and that foreseeable death is proportionate when weighed against the life of the mother. On the other hand, a chemical abortifacient would violate the PDE because, in treating the mother, the death of the child would be directly pursued. In other words, in the abortifacient case, the mother is being treated by means of killing the child. The child’s death is not merely foreseen, it is actively pursued. That is also why the surgeon must remove the child intact; otherwise, the child’s death would be directly pursued as a means.

Whether or not this particular analysis of ectopic pregnancy is ultimately correct, and we must be careful not to misuse the PDE as has sometimes been done, these examples clearly show that the moral defect of abortion lies not with the termination of the pregnancy, but with the direct killing of the child. In fact, one leading pro-life philosopher has argued that the ultimate solution to the abortion problem might lie in the technological development of artificial wombs. This would, at least in theory, allow the intact removal of “unwanted” embryos without necessarily resulting in their deaths.

If we return to the emergency contraception case, then it is apparent that the real issue is the mechanism by which they work, not what counts as pregnancy. While there are good reasons to think that contraception (understood merely as the prevention of fertilization) is itself morally defective, it is clearly a lesser evil than the destruction of an innocent human being. So I will mostly set the contraception question aside and focus on the destruction question.

The Unintended Evil: Killing an Innocent Human Being

On the one hand, the advocates of emergency contraception are quick to claim that “emergency contraceptive pills prevent pregnancy primarily, or perhaps exclusively, by delaying or inhibiting ovulation.” Obviously, if no ovum is released, then fertilization is impossible. In that case, the moral concern is solely with contraception, not homicide. However, as Donna Harrison previously argued at Public Discourse, there are good empirical reasons to believe that some of the methods in question in the Hobby Lobby case “can and do cause embryos to die after fertilization.”

It seems fair to say that the emergency contraception advocates’ hedge that emergency contraception works “primarily, or perhaps exclusively, by delaying or inhibiting ovulation” (emphasis added) reflects lingering doubt about exactly how the methods work, even among those committed to promoting their use. This is a telling hesitation, a kind of residual honesty in admitting the possibility that, in at least some of the cases, these methods directly result in the death of embryos. (Hedging phraseology of this sort occurs on numerous online discussions, including both of those previously linked and the Mayo Clinic. The New York Times approvingly notes a recent movement to remove these hedges.) I suspect this hedging represents a kind of bad faith, and this in turn explains their repeated appeals to authority and attempts to take refuge in medical definitions of pregnancy and abortion that are morally irrelevant.

In the end, of course, none of the linguistic hairsplitting matters. What really matters in the morality of abortion is not whether a pregnancy has been terminated, but whether an innocent human being has been murdered. Understanding the mechanism of how these methods work is an empirical, scientific question about which there seems to be controversy within the medical community itself. However, I think it is significant that even the advocates of emergency contraception admit uncertainty about how the methods work and whether they kill embryos or prevent implantation.

From a moral perspective, if there is any plausible reason to believe that one of the consequences of the drugs is—even occasionally—the death of embryo, then they are morally equivalent to abortifacients that work after implantation. The fact that the intended purpose of the drugs is to prevent ovulation is ultimately immaterial if their actual consequence is to kill living embryos or prevent implantation.

Ultimately, even if one thinks that the prevention of fertilization is morally indifferent, surely it is not worth pursuing at the cost of innocent human life. That is, it would not meet the proportionality requirement (4) of PDE. Furthermore, if contraception is itself an evil, then there is absolutely no good to set against even the possibility of killing an innocent human being, so proportionality would not even enter into it.

Reprinted with permission from Public Discourse

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Lisa Bourne

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Cardinal Dolan: Debate on denying Communion to pro-abortion pols ‘in the past’

Lisa Bourne
By Lisa Bourne

As America heads into its 2014 midterm elections, a leading U.S. prelate says the nation’s bishops believe debate over whether to deny Communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians is “in the past.”

The Church’s Code of Canon Law states in Canon 915 that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” Leading Vatican officials, including Pope Benedict XVI himself, have said this canon ought to be applied in the case of pro-abortion Catholic politicians. However, prelates in the West have widely ignored it, and some have openly disagreed.

John Allen, Jr. of the new website Crux, launched as a Catholic initiative under the auspices of the Boston Globe, asked New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan about the issue earlier this month.

“In a way, I like to think it’s an issue that served us well in forcing us to do a serious examination of conscience about how we can best teach our people about their political responsibilities,” the cardinal responded, “but by now that inflammatory issue is in the past.”

“I don’t hear too many bishops saying it’s something that we need to debate nationally, or that we have to decide collegially,” he continued. “I think most bishops have said, ‘We trust individual bishops in individual cases.’ Most don’t think it’s something for which we have to go to the mat.”

Cardinal Dolan expressed personal disinterest in upholding Canon 915 publicly in 2010 when he told an Albany TV station he was not in favor of denying Communion to pro-abortion politicians. He said at the time that he preferred “to follow the lead of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who said it was better to try to persuade them than to impose sanctions.”

However, in 2004 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI the following year, wrote the U.S. Bishops a letter stating that a Catholic politician who would vote for "permissive abortion and euthanasia laws" after being duly instructed and warned, "must" be denied Communion. 

Cardinal Ratzinger sent the document to the U.S. Bishops in 2004 to help inform their debate on the issue. However, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then-chair of the USCCB Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians, who received the letter, withheld the full text from the bishops, and used it instead to suggest ambiguity on the issue from the Vatican.

A couple of weeks after Cardinal McCarrick’s June 2004 address to the USCCB, the letter from Cardinal Ratzinger was leaked to well-known Vatican reporter Sandro Magister, who published the full document. Cardinal Ratzinger’s office later confirmed the leaked document as authentic.

Since the debate in 2004, numerous U.S. prelates have openly opposed denying Communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians.

In 2008, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley suggested the Church had yet to formally pronounce on the issue, and that until it does, “I don’t think we’re going to be denying Communion to the people.”

In 2009, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington D.C. in 2009 said that upholding of Canon 915 would turn the Eucharist into a political “weapon,” refusing to employ the law in the case of abortion supporter Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

Cardinal Roger Mahoney, archbishop emeritus of Los Angeles, said in a 2009 newspaper interview that pro-abortion politicians should be granted communion because Jesus Christ gave Holy Communion to Judas Iscariot.

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However, one of the Church’s leading proponents of the practice, U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who is prefect of the Vatican’s Apostolic Signatura, insists that denying Communion is not a punishment.

“The Church’s discipline from the time of Saint Paul has admonished those who obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin not to present themselves for Holy Communion,” he said at LifeSiteNews’ first annual Rome Life Forum in Vatican City in early May. "The discipline is not a punishment but the recognition of the objective condition of the soul of the person involved in such sin."  

Only days earlier, Cardinal Francis Arinze, former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, told LifeSiteNews that he has no patience for politicians who say that they are “personally” opposed to abortion, but are unwilling to “impose” their views on others.

On the question of Communion, he said, “Do you really need a cardinal from the Vatican to answer that?”

Cardinal Christian Tumi, archbishop emeritus of Douala, told LifeSiteNews around the same time that ministers of Holy Communion are “bound not to” give the Eucharist to Catholic politicians who support abortion.

Pro-life organizations across the world have said they share the pastoral concern for pro-abortion politicians. Fifty-two pro-life leaders from 16 nations at the recent Rome Life Forum called on the bishops of the Catholic Church to honor Canon 915 and withhold Communion from pro-abortion politicians as an act of love and mercy.

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‘His bones are basically like paper’: Parents refuse to abort baby with rare condition

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By Kirsten Anderson

At just 11 weeks old, little Layton Diven is not like other babies. Every time his parents pick him up or cuddle him, there is a chance they will break his bones. In fact, Layton has already suffered more than 20 fractures in his short life – beginning at the moment of his birth.

Layton has Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI), a rare disease that makes his bones brittle and prone to breakage. There are several types of OI, and Layton’s type, OI Type III, is the most severe type found among infants. Most babies born with the disease, like Layton, are born with multiple fractures, especially along the rib cage. Many struggle to breathe or swallow. The incurable disease is progressive, so it will get worse as he gets older.

Layton was diagnosed with OI in the womb, but abortion wasn’t an option for his parents, Chad and Angela Diven, who considered their baby a gift from God, no matter his condition.

“We weren't going to have an abortion, so he was born with the disease,” Angela Diven told KSLA. “God chose me for him, to be his mom, so I have to take that huge responsibility and do what's best for him.”

That responsibility comes with a heavy price. Layton requires 24-hour care, but both Angela and Chad have full-time jobs. He can’t go to regular daycare, because it’s not safe for him.

“You can't just pick him up like a normal baby,” Diven said. “You can't dress him like a normal child; his bones are basically like paper. He can't go to daycare because of his condition. He's medically fragile, and a daycare can't handle him."

Childcare costs are just the beginning, though – the treatments Layton will need throughout his life are expensive and may not be covered by insurance.

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Layton is currently receiving pamidronate IV therapy, which will help to strengthen his bones. But in order to be able to stand or walk, he will need metal rods implanted in his legs – an operation that will cost the Divens $80,000. The OI specialist coordinating Layton’s care is in Omaha, Nebraska, while the Divens live in Louisiana. As he grows, Layton will also require special equipment, such as a wheelchair, along with extensive physical therapy.

Despite the hardships they knew would come, the Divens stepped out in faith to bring Layton into the world. Now, they are reaching out to the internet for help to shoulder the financial burdens that came with their baby blessing. The family has set up both a GoFundMe and a Facebook page called “Lifting Up Layton Diven,” where people can receive updates on Layton’s condition and contribute to the cost of his care.

To donate to baby Layton’s medical trust fund, click here.

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Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Vatican's Apostolic Signatura Steve Jalsevac / LifeSiteNews
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Sources confirm Cardinal Burke will be removed. But will he attend the Synod?

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By John-Henry Westen

Sources in Rome have confirmed to LifeSiteNews that Cardinal Raymond Burke, the head of the Vatican’s highest court, known as the Apostolic Signatura, is to be removed from his post as head of the Vatican dicastery and given a non-curial assignment as patron of the Order of Malta.

The timing of the move is key since Cardinal Burke is currently on the list to attend October’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family. He is attending in his capacity as head of one of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia, so if he is removed prior to the Synod it could mean he would not be able to attend.

Burke has been one of the key defenders in the lead-up to the Synod of the Church's traditional practice of withholding Communion from Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried.

Most of the Catholic world first learned of the shocking development through Vatican reporter Sandro Magister, whose post ‘Exile to Malta for Cardinal Burke’ went out late last night.

If Burke’s removal from the Signatura is confirmed, said Magister, the cardinal “would not be promoted - as some are fantasizing in the blogosphere - to the difficult but prestigious see of Chicago, but rather demoted to the pompous - but ecclesiastically very modest - title of ‘cardinal patron’ of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, replacing the current head, Paolo Sardi, who recently turned 80.”

At 66, Cardinal Burke is still in his Episcopal prime.

The prominent traditional Catholic blog Rorate Caeli goes as far as to say, “It would be the greatest humiliation of a Curial Cardinal in living memory, truly unprecedented in modern times: considering the reasonably young age of the Cardinal, such a move would be, in terms of the modern Church, nothing short than a complete degradation and a clear punishment.”

On Tuesday, American traditionalist priest-blogger Fr. John Zuhlsdorf also hinted he had heard the move was underway. “I’ve been biting the inside of my mouth for a while now,” he wrote. “The optimist in me was saying that the official announcement would not be made until after the Synod of Bishops, or at least the beginning of the Synod. Or at all.”

“It’s not good news,” he added.

Both Magister and Zuhlsdorf predicted that the controversial move would unleash a wave of simultaneous jubilation from dissident Catholics and criticism from faithful Catholics. The decision to remove Cardinal Burke from his position on the Congregation for Bishops last December caused a public outpouring of concern and dismay from Catholic and pro-life leaders across the globe.

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Both men speculated on the reasons for the ouster. 

Magister pointed out that Burke is the latest in a line of ‘Ratzingerian’ prelates to undergo the axe.

“In his first months as bishop of Rome, pope Bergoglio immediately provided for the transfer to lower-ranking positions of three prominent curial figures: Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Archbishop Guido Pozzo, and Bishop Giuseppe Sciacca, considered for their theological and liturgical sensibilities among the most ‘Ratzingerian’ of the Roman curia,” said Magister.

He added: “Another whose fate appears to be sealed is the Spanish archbishop of Opus Dei Celso Morga Iruzubieta.”

Fr. Zuhlsdorf observed that Pope Francis may also be shrinking the Curial offices and thus reducing the number of Cardinals needed to fill those posts. He adds however, “It would be naïve in the extreme to think that there are lacking near Francis’s elbows those who have been sharpening their knives for Card. Burke and for anyone else associated closely with Pope Benedict.” 

“This is millennial, clerical blood sport.”

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