Life of the Mother

The Catholic Response When Pregnancy Threatens The Life Of The Mother

When pregnancy threatens the life of the mother, it is blatantly immoral to directly kill the child in order to save the mother. 

Having stated a firm moral principle, it is also important to teach that therapeutic efforts intended to save the mother’s life are permitted even if it is known that such efforts may have the undesirable result of killing the child. Virtually any therapy or surgery whose primary purpose is to save the life of the mother is permitted, including, for example, chemotherapy for the treatment of cancer, even though chemotherapy will likely kill the child. Such treatments are permitted when it is quite apparent that without them, the mother would die and as a result, the baby would die also.

Another difficult situation is presented when the mother is experiencing an ectopic pregnancy (extrauterine pregnancy). One such example is a tubal pregnancy, where the fetus fails to descend normally down the fallopian tube into the uterus and remains in the tube where it continues to grow. Such a situation, if not corrected will likely result in death for both mother and child. It is therefore permissible to surgically remove the fetus from the tube to save the mother’s life. Here, the intent is not to kill the fetus, but to move it. When technology offers a destination that will preserve the life of the fetus, such as the uterus or an external incubator, the fetus may then live. In the meantime, the fetus will unfortunately die, but not by direct intent. Hence this procedure is permissible according to Catholic moral teaching. In exercising judgment in these complicated situations, men of good conscience will see that it is the intent that is important.

In political terms, the above teaching does not offer an exception for “life of the mother.” If such an exception were offered, it would in effect grant moral permission to directly kill an unborn child to end a pregnancy (when a mother’s life is threatened) rather than directing the medical attention to therapies which save the mother’s life and perhaps the child’s as well.