What does the Church believe when pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s life?
The same moral principles apply in this as in any issue concerning life. Our guiding principles are that (1) all human life is sacred, (2) we cannot take an innocent human life (thou shall not kill), and (3) we can never directly intend to do an evil action even if we believe good will come from it (the means do not justify the ends). The Church values and respects the dignity of all human persons, mother and child, and is concerned about the well-being of both.
If a pregnancy occurs that develops into the rare situation where it is a threat to the mother’s life, the solution cannot be an abortion, for that would violate the principles mentioned above. However, I acknowledge that there are some difficult situations, such as an ectopic pregnancy (the fertilized egg attaches in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus). In such a case, there is zero possibility that the baby will survive, and doing nothing will also result in the mother’s death too. Obviously something in this case should be done to save at least one life. The only option available is to save the mother’s life, since there is no current technology to move the tiny growing human life from fallopian tube to womb and bring it full term. In this case, the Church still does not advocate abortion–the direct killing of the baby. But instead, the Church advocates the removal of the small section of the tiny fallopian tube that has become damaged and will eventually rupture by the growth of the baby in this wrong spot. The intention is good and the action is neutral–removing a damaged, life-threatening organ. It brings about the good effect that the mother will live. A second and undesired evil effect is that the baby will die. We call this the principle of double effect. It can seem like a matter of semantics, but the principle tries to wrestle with the fact that sometimes we have to choose the lesser of two evils, but we should always avoid choosing to do evil directly.
For me personally, I like to look at this in terms of virtue. What is the action that is most heroic, most Christ-like? Is there is any possibility to save the baby, even if it costs me my life? One shining example is that of St. Gianna Molla who died in 1962 shortly after successfully giving birth to her fourth child. St. Gianna could have saved her own life at the cost of her baby, but she chose to do everything she could to save her child’s life instead. As we close this Respect Life Month, perhaps we too can ask ourselves what more we can do to save a life.