Saturday, December 25, 2010

The life of the mother

I see that TFan has commented on a recent controversy involving a Roman bishop and a nominally Catholic hospital. For context, I’ll quote the bishop’s summary of the situation:

Then, earlier this year, it was brought to my attention that an abortion had taken place at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix. When I met with officials of the hospital to learn more of the details of what had occurred, it became clear that, in the decision to abort, the equal dignity of mother and her baby were not both upheld; but that the baby was directly killed, which is a clear violation of ERD #45. It also was clear that the exceptional cases, mentioned in ERD #47, were not met, that is, that there was not a cancerous uterus or other grave malady that might justify an indirect and unintended termination of the life of the baby to treat the grave illness.
In this case, the baby was healthy and there were no problems with the pregnancy; rather, the mother had a disease that needed to be treated. But instead of treating the disease, St. Joseph's medical staff and ethics committee decided that the healthy, 11-week-old baby should be directly killed. This is contrary to the teaching of the Church (Cf. Evangelium Vitae, #62).

For discussion purposes, let us grant the accuracy of this summation. With that in mind, TFan says:

9) A final passage also came to mind as fitting the situation.
Matthew 23:23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
Here's a bishop talking about going through his rote prayers - the minimal requirements of his clerical office, and yet he has just condemned a hospital that made the very difficult decision to use lethal force to defend the life of a woman from her child. Was that decision right? Ultimately God will judge, but normally lethal force is permitted in defense of life. If, in fact, the situation is as it has been reported, it appears that the woman had the right to defend herself.
10) I was also struck by the fact that the bishop's stated identity was not Christ alone, but "Christ and the Church." What he considers to be faithfulness to Christ is faithfulness to the rules of his church. However, in following the rules of his church, he's not following God's law. I'm not simply talking about his failure to allow self-defense to be a justification for killing in this case, but about the fact that he offers worship (hyper-dulia) to Mary, engages in idolatry (in the latria of what is truly bread), and seeks to be right with God (evidently) through faithfulness rather than by faith.

I agree with TFan on the religious issue. But on the ethical issue I demur.

i) The fact that someone may pose a threat to my life is not a sufficient condition to trigger the right of self-defense. Take the proverbial lifeboat situation. Suppose there are two passengers: myself, and another castaway. My fellow passenger poses a threat to my survival inasmuch as scarce supplies of food and water will go twice as fast with two mouths to feed.  My odds of survival are greatly improved if I off my fellow passenger. Yet that wouldn’t be morally warranted.

Or, to try a different illustration, suppose a sadistic hostage-taker gives a hostage a choice: he can either choose a fellow hostage to be executed, and thereby save his own hide, or else, if he refuses to choose, the hostage-taker will shoot him instead.

From a Christian standpoint, I think it would be illicit for the hostage to volunteer another hostage to die, even if that refusal will cost him his own life.

Ordinarily, the right of self-defense involves an unjust aggressor. The assailant doesn’t merely pose a threat to my life. Rather, he wrongs he in the process. And his intent is malicious.

That’s quite different from the situation of a baby in the womb.

ii) In addition, we have certain innate social obligations. All things being equal, parents have a duty to protect their children from danger. What is more, it is the duty of parents to protect their children from danger even if that endangers the parent in the process.

In other words, parents have a prima facie obligation to protect their children from harm, rather than protect themselves by harming their children.

Of course, there are hypothetical or real-life or hypothetical scenarios in which a child might become the unjust assailant. If a juvenile delinquent points a loaded gun at his mother, then he has, unfortunately, forfeited his prima facie right to enjoy parental protection. Conversely, grown children have an obligation to protect their parents from harm.

A stickier situation might be, let us say, a three-year-old boy who points a loaded gun at his two-year-old sister. The boy doesn’t know what he’s doing. He is innocent. Yet that doesn’t change the fact that he poses a mortal threat to his sister.

Still, that poses a different sort of dilemma. For a parent has a prima facie obligation to protect both kids from harm. That’s rather different than a parent protecting him/herself from the child (by lethal force, if necessary).

Of course, there are also situations in which the survival of a child is bound up with the survival of a parent–since children are dependent on their parents. Take the hypothetical case of the father who throws one child over the back of the sled to keep the wolves at bay in hopes of saving his other two kids. If the father dies, the children die. If the wolves overtake the sled, all aboard will perish

However, in situations like that, where no outcome is a good outcome, I tend to think we should acquiesce to our providential fate (as it were) and leave it to God sort it out the consequences.

Ethics in a fallen world must often deal with the paradoxical situation of risking lives to save lives. The tricky question is where to draw the line. All we can do is to apply general norms to typical situations. 


  1. Interesting points on the ethical issue. Suppose that instead of an infant child in the womb, we have a very mentally deficient adult who is suffering from delusions and has an axe in his hand. He wants to chop you down and put lights and ornaments on you, because he thinks you're a coniferous tree.

    He lacks any evil intent, and yet his actions are a threat to your life. Are you permitted to act in self defense - including (if necessary) to use lethal force?

    I think you would agree. So, I'm not sure that the lack of malice on the part of the unborn infant changes the analysis.

    I'm not sure it does, but it is an important point.


  2. These are really three questions bundled into one:

    If my delusional son imperiled my life (in the scenario you describe, or something analogous):

    i) Would I have the right to defend myself?

    ii) Would I have the right, if need be, to kill him to defend myself?

    iii) Assuming I have the right to kill him, would I exercise my right?

    I certainly have the right to defend myself. On the other hand, I seriously doubt I'd use lethal force (if it came to that) to defend myself.

    Since he's my son, and since he's not responsible for his actions (per your illustration), I'd rather put myself at risk of mortal harm than put my son at risk of mortal harm.

    So while I'd answer (i) in the affirmative, I'd answer (iii) in the negative.

    That leaves (ii). That's hard to say. It's usually permissible to use lethal force in self-defense.

    However, we do have higher responsibilities to family. There can be extenuating circumstances which mitigate our prima facie responsibilities in that regard (e.g. my example of the murderous juvenile delinquent), but that cuts both ways in your scenario since there are extenuating circumstances which mitigate the conduct of my delusional son.

    One could pursue other permutations. For now I’m just addressing your counterexample.

  3. There are other things going on here. First of all, whether the mother had a legal right to defend herself is besides the point. The question is was it morally acceptable. I don't see how Steve's answer to that question can be wrong.

    Secondly, it seems to me that few mothers (or fathers) would normally kill their own children in self-defense. They would die if necessary rather than kill their own children. A normal parent almost certainly wouldn't kill his delusional axe-wielding adult son even to save his own life. Many normal parents get abortions, though. The reason there are so many abortions is that mothers don't believe or don't have a gut-belief (if that means anything) that their unborn babies are their babies, and because somebody else (the abortionist) is wielding the knife. I don't know why that's true. It is partly because abortion is legal and accepted in our culture but there's more to it than that. There's something in our psychology that at least some people don't think a person is a person until they see him face-to-face.

  4. Say an airplane crashes on top of a mountain and the only survivors are a father, his son and a non-relative (say the pilot they just met that day). They exit the plane and because it's winter, they realise they all have to walk down the mountain to get to shelter. Otherwise, they'll all freeze to death on the mountain. For whatever reason, a rescue party won't be able to save them. Maybe there's a snow storm approaching and visibility is zero. Now, on their way down, the pilot slips and falls down 20 feet and breaks a leg. In this situation, trying to help the man hop his way down the mountain will certainly slow them down enough to guarantee the death of all three persons. Also, the pilot is overweight, the son is only 7 years old and the father isn't strong enough to carry the pilot down the mountain. Would it be the case that the father has an obligation to leave the pilot and continue down the mountain in hopes of saving his son?

    What about a senario where there were only two survivors, the man and the pilot. Both of them have no families (no wife, children, parents etc. to take care of back home). The pilot breaks his leg just like in the example above. Would the man now have an obligation to try to help the pilot get down the mountain since Scripture says we are to love our neighbor as ourselves? Say both men conclude that there's a 85% chance the first man can get to safetly if he leaves the pilot there. While only a 5% (or 0%) chance either or both of them will get to safety on time before they freeze to death if both of them try to climb down the mountain together (with the first man obviously helping the pilot)? What if the pilot tells the first man that he should leave him and save himself? Would the man be free to save himself merely because the pilot let him "off the hook"? Or would God's requirement to love our neighbor require that the man help the pilot against all hope? Of course there's always the hope of a miracle, but in this situation we're dealing with probabilities based on God's *ordinary* providence.

  5. We could also reverse TFan's example. Instead of a murderous, delusional son, suppose we have a murderous, senile parent. Would TFan commit patricide or matricide in self-defense? I doubt it.

    Perhaps, though, he sees an asymmetry in the respective obligations. Even so, that caveat would go beyond the right of self-defense.

  6. typo corrections:

    1. The following sentence shouldn't have a question mark at the end of it.

    "While only a 5% (or 0%) chance either or both of them will get to safety on time before they freeze to death if both of them try to climb down the mountain together (with the first man obviously helping the pilot)?"

    2. "Or would God's requirement to love our neighbor require that the man help the pilot against all hope?"

    I should have wrote "Or would God's requirement to love our neighbor require that the man help the pilot against all hope [and contrary to the allowance/pleas of the pilot for the first man to save himself]?

  7. Interesting discussion.


    What if you were all that stood between your delusional murderous son and the rest of your family (wife, delusional-son's siblings) and none of them were able to physically overpower the axe-wielding would-be killer, and none of them could escape?

    In other words, it's you (and your family) or him?

    What then?

    Just curious.

    In Him,

  8. All these things considered, these verses will and should guide those of us filled with the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts by Grace and Truth, Grace upon Grace:

    1Jn 4:10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
    1Jn 4:11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
    1Jn 4:12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

    Here is the question:

    While it was the sole responsibility of Christ to propitiate for our sins by suffering the execution He suffered at the hands of godless men and it seems by those verses God teaches us it falls to those of us who have His Spirit to propitiate with His love one another, not ours, "who", then, is the "one another" we also are to cover expiating their sins and love with His Love?

    Psa 7:11 God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.

    Given all that can be considered, I am left in Living Hope with this as a daily goal experienced one day at a time:

    1Ti 1:5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

    Beyond that, which scenario would be correct for you unless you were put into one of those scenarios to experience to allow God's Spirit to rule yours and indicate to you providing you with an appropriate response?

    Back to the objectives and the objections raised by TurretinFan, I see the Bishop was faced with both religious pride and ethical integrity in making his decision to demote the hospital, so, all things considered, for him, at least, what else was there for him to do but what he did, which in my view was, "he winged it"!

    Of course, only he knows if these words helped guide him along the path he found himself on?

    Pro 16:20 Whoever gives thought to the word will discover good, and blessed is he who trusts in the LORD.
    Pro 16:21 The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.
    Pro 16:22 Good sense is a fountain of life to him who has it, but the instruction of fools is folly.

  9. CD,

    In that situation I think lethal force would be justified.

  10. Steve, I was really focusing on (ii) - the issue of whether there is a right to defend using lethal force - not whether you would exercise the right. There are a number of emotional issues that might make it difficult to exercise that right.

    It would be hard to kill one's parent (senile or not), even if it was certainly the right thing to do.


  11. We shouldn't reason with our gut but we shouldn't ignore our gut.

    Your gut tells you that you shouldn't kill your child even in self-defense. You should doubt your rational conclusions if they don't support that gut-feeling, it seems to me.

    Leaving that sentiment aside something that should be considered is that the abortion example is critically different than the insane axe-wielder example. Regardless of the axe-wielder's delusions, he is doing something aggressive and homicidal. Even his intentions, thought not homicidal, are arboricidal. He is acting. The baby is doing nothing, however, but living. The baby is passive and is simply at a certain stage of life. The axe-wielder is an attacker, though not sinfully. The baby is not an attacker. The attacker in the abortion example is not a person but is simply the mother's medical condition. The mother is being attacked by her medical condition, not by her child. So even if you may defend yourself against a crazy person attacking you by preemptively killing him (and we probably all agree that you may do so if the attacker is a stranger), this abortion is not a case where you are defending yourself against someone attacking you by killing him, it is a case where you are preventing the disease from killing you by killing an innocent bystander, the baby.