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.