The Vatican’s “Small Favors” on Abortion

Earlier this month, I highlighted the case of the 9-year old Brazilian girl who received an abortion after being raped by her stepfather. Cardinal Cardoso Sobrinho swiftly excommunicated the doctors who provided the abortion and the girl's mother, who approved it — while maintaining that the rapist himself was worthy of forgiveness.

Last week the story got more complicated, with the Vatican’s top bioethics official, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, writing in the Vatican's newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, that the doctors did not, after all, deserve excommunication. Ross Douthat had some thoughtful words on the topic, writing:

…while the institutional Church is not a democracy, neither is it a monolith: Save on rare occasions, it will always speak with a multiplicity of voices, some of them wise and loving and some of them ignorant, or tone-deaf, or legalistic, or cruel. But for the Church to carry out its mission, and turn outward to the world rather than inward on itself, the latter sort of voices can't always be the ones that speak up first and loudest, and have their words carried halfway around the world before wisdom and charity have even gotten out of bed.

Now Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for a Free Choice, has written an essay for Religion Dispatches analyzing the Church's mixed messages on this case. Fisichella has done nothing to fundamentally transform the Church's teachings on abortion, Kissling explains — and indeed, he calls abortion an "intrinsically wicked act." But under some interpretations, Catholic teaching already allows abortion in cases — such as the removal of a cancerous uterus — in which the death of the fetus can be seen as a "byproduct" of some other life-saving medical procedure. In the Brazilian case, in which the physical and psychological life of a child were threatened by carrying a pregnancy to term after rape, Fisichella implies that moral Catholic doctors could reasonably disagree about whether abortion is a life-saving measure or simply a means to kill a fetus. Kissling's take-away? "[T]the fact that he acknowledges any moral discretion for physicians is extremely important," she writes. "You can bet that there will be an outcry from the ultra conservatives in the church, perhaps a clarification by the Archbishop, but the fact is that he has unlocked a door through which women, doctors and policy makers can creep. I am thankful for small favors."

cross-posted at TAPPED

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