Might Pope Francis adopt a more nuanced stance on abortion?


Gary Gutting, a philosphy professor at the University of Notre Dame, SAYS Pope Francis cold revise the Catholic Church’s ban on abortion without contradicting his commitment to the value of human life:

Pope Francis has raised expectations of a turn away from the dogmatic intransigence that has long cast a pall over the religious life of many Roman Catholics. His question “Who am I to judge?” suggested a new attitude toward homosexuality, and he is apparently willing to consider allowing the use of contraceptives to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. But his position on what has come to be the hierarchy’s signature issue — abortion — seems unyielding. “Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life,” he declared in his recent apostolic exhortation, “Evangeli Guadium,” adding: “Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the church cannot be expected to change her position on this question.”

I want to explore the possibility, however, that the pope might be open to significant revision of the absolute ban on abortion by asking what happens if we take seriously his claim that “reason alone is sufficient” to adjudicate this issue. What actually follows regarding abortion once we accept the “inviolable value of each single human life”? This appeal to rational reflection has been a central feature of the tradition of Catholic moral teaching.


[T]he “inviolable value of each human life” does not imply that no abortion can be moral. Here the case of rape is especially relevant. It is hard to claim that a rape victim has a moral duty to bring to term a pregnancy forced on her by rape, even if we assume that there is a fully human person present from the moment of conception. We might admire someone who has the heroic generosity to do this, but talk of murder is out of place. As the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson has noted, if someone kidnapped you and connected your kidneys to those of someone who would die unless the connection were maintained for the next nine months, you would hardly be obliged to go along with this. How can we require a woman pregnant by a rapist to do essentially the same thing?

Other exceptions to the condemnation of abortion arise once we realize that an early-stage embryo may be biologically human but still lack the main features — consciousness, self-awareness, an interest in the future — that underlie most moral considerations. An organism may be human by purely biological criteria, but still merely potentially human in the full moral sense…[K]illing a potential human is in itself bad, but there’s no reason to think that we are obliged to preserve the life of a potential human at the price of enormous suffering by actual humans.

There is, then, a strong case for thinking that abortions always bring about some bad results — at a minimum the loss of potential human life — and that for most pregnancies abortion would be morally wrong. But this conclusion is limited in two ways: A woman’s right to control her reproductive life can, as in the case of rape, offset even a person’s right to life; and at least at the earlier stages of pregnancy, the embryo has only the moral standing of potential, not actual, human life, which may be overridden by harm to humans with full moral standing.


These limitations, I suggest, correspond to the “very difficult situations” (such as “rape” and “extreme poverty”) in which the pope, in “Evangelii Gaudium,” admitted the church has “done little to adequately accompany women.” Allowing for exceptions to the moral condemnation of abortion in some of these painful situations would not contradict the pope’s overall commitment to the “value of the human person.” Rather, it would admit what reason shows: There are morally difficult issues about abortion that should be decided by conscience, not legislation. The result would be a church acting according to the pope’s own stated standard: preaching not “certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options” but rather the gospel of love.


1 Comment

  1. What are the pro-choice arguments for needing to have an abortion beyond 20 weeks?

    To me, at 8 weeks a fetus first develops a heartbeat. Why can’t abortions be legal for the first 8 weeks, and illegal after that?

    The whole “life begins at conception” argument from the right never made much sense to me. But at 2 months, most people have a pretty good idea that they are pregnant, and they still can have a choice to abort before there is a heartbeat.

    So based upon the 8 week heartbeat analogy, 20 weeks seems more than generous. Make no mistake, I still think abortion should be fully legal prior to 8 weeks, but a fetus at 5 months that can feel pain sure seems like murder to me, especially considering today’s science to preserve life outside the womb.

    So in today’s world, I’m not really sure if I’m pro-choice or pro-life anymore….

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