Is Abortion Ever OK if the Mother’s Life is in Danger?

Recent bills in New York and Virginia allowing for abortion into the third trimester and even just prior to birth have brought the issue of maternal health and abortion access to the fore. Those who are pro-choice often cite the need for abortion access when the mother’s life is in danger, painting those who are pro-life as misogynists who would rather see a woman die than allow an abortion to save her life.

However, being pro-life means recognizing the sanctity of life for both the mother and the baby. A listener called in to Go Ask Your Father™ this week to ask how to ethically approach a situation, such as an ectopic pregnancy, in which saving the life of the mother means ending the life of the baby.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland explained that there is a difference between directly ending the baby’s life through abortion and allowing that the baby’s life may be lost in the effort to save the mother. The direct ending of life through abortion is never permissible, but a procedure that might end the baby’s life may be permissible.

Msgr. Swetland explained, “This is called the principle of double effect. … Many, many medical procedures function off the principle of double effect. In rare cases where the mother’s life is, in fact, in danger, it can be (and this has to be analyzed in each and every case) the upright and just thing to do to intervene to save the life of the mother.”

Giving two examples, Msgr. Swetland said, “The most famous case is one you touched on, the ectopic pregnancy, and the other one is the cancerous womb. And in both cases we can intervene to do the life-saving procedure. The removal of the fallopian tube where the ectopic pregnancy has lodged, before it ruptures and threatens the life of the mother, and the removal of the cancerous womb. We can do it under certain circumstances, because we intend the life-saving activity, and we only accept as a side consequence that there might be harm to the pre-born child.”

Some may ask what the difference is between this and abortion. Msgr. Swetland told the listener that in all cases, “We do everything to save that child. For example, in the cancerous womb case if the child is viable we do everything we can to save that child. But even if it’s pre-viability, if the surgery must be done to save the life of the mother, you could, in certain circumstances, do the operation and it would be just. Because you never intend harm to come to the child. You would do everything you can to help that child.”

This approach underlines the key difference between abortion and procedures that may result in the loss of the child. Msgr. Swetland pointed out, “You recognize that there are two patients involved, the mother and the child, and you try to save both. But if the only way to do this is to save one, you would save the one you think has the best chance of living, which in many cases would be the mother.  I’m trying to be as generic as I can without getting into specifics. But the Church has always allowed those, and those are not direct abortions and so they are not unjust killing.”

“But again, you always treat those cases recognizing that there are two patients involved. The pre-born child and the mother. And that should be clear to anybody who has a moral conscience and knows the scientific facts. There are two patients involved.”

Listen to the full conversation below:

Go Ask Your Father airs weekdays at 1:00 p.m. Eastern/10:00 a.m. Pacific on Relevant Radio® and the Relevant Radio App.

Stephanie Foley serves as a Digital Media Producer at Relevant Radio®. She is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where she studied journalism, and she has worked in Catholic radio for 12 years. Stephanie is a wife, a mother of three boys, and in her free time she enjoys reading, running, and really good coffee. You can find more of Stephanie’s writing at and on the free Relevant Radio mobile app.