Saturday, May 22, 2010

Abortion and Double Effect

The case of the abortion performed in a Catholic hospital in Arizona and approved by a nun there--see my post below for May 18--may be more complex than I at first thought. The principle of double effect invoked in this case distinguishes between acts performed as directly intended means to another effect (e.g., killing one innocent human being in order to save the life of another) on one hand and, on the other, acts to achieve another outcome that have a foreseen but unintended effect (e.g., e.g., treating cancer in a pregnant woman with the foreseen but unintended effect of killing her unborn child). In one case, the fetus (let's say) is deliberately killed in order to save the mother. In the other, the aim is to treat the cancer, not to kill the fetus, even though that is an unintended side effect of the cancer treatment. The latter is allowable according to Church teaching and orthodox Catholic moral theologians, the former not because it violates the exceptionless norm of not intentionally killing an innocent human being.

The questions and complications involved in this apparently simple distinction are many and considerable. There is a very interesting discussion of this in the context of the Arizona case at

Both the article by philosopher and theologian Michael Liccione and the rich discussion in the Comments section below bring out some of those questions and complexities.

See also the article by Elizabeth Anscombe published originally in 1967 in a magazine I founded and edited back in the day, (The Oxford Review 5, 1967, pp.16-17), "Who Is Wronged: Philippa Foot on Double Effect: One Point." It is republished in the collection of her essays on Human Life, Action and Ethics edited by Mary Geach and Luke Gormally.

No comments:

Post a Comment