Clarifying 'Double Effect'GEORGE WEIGEL
The recent controversy over the termination of a pregnancy at Phoenix's St. Joseph's Hospital, which Phoenix bishop Thomas Olmsted determined to have been a direct abortion and thus a grave moral evil, has generated a secondary controversy over the meaning of the Church's traditional moral principle of "double effect."
The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, an indispensable source of Catholic information and analysis on bioethical and medical ethical issues, recently issued a statement on the Phoenix case. The statement clarified the double-effect issue in language that people without any special training in moral theology or moral philosophy can understand, and is worth quoting at length:
In the wake of the Phoenix case, other Catholic hospitals have been asked what they would do in the rare and wrenching circumstance where continuing a pregnancy would put the lives of both mother and child at risk. The first answer usually given is the correct one: "We would try to save both lives." But some have gone on to give a further answer: "But if that were impossible, we would save the life we could save" – by means, one assumes, of terminating the pregnancy.
This is not right. It violates the bedrock principle of "first, do no harm." There is no moral casuistry that can justify doing the "harm" that is the intentional taking of an innocent human life – period. Attempts to justify termination in such circumstances by redefining the act of termination border on the Orwellian, further confusing the public discussion. (Recent horror stories from the Philadelphia abortuary should have taught us where the language of euphemism leads.) Furthermore, "we'll save the life we can save" does not meet the standards of the principle of double effect, as outlined above.
The Catholic Church is one of the last major institutions defending the Hippocratic principle that the true physician's first responsibility is to "do no harm." Attempts to chip away at that Catholic commitment – by public authorities untutored in the meaning of religious freedom, or by theologians and philosophers advancing speculative views detached from clinical reality – damage the common good and impede the building of a culture of life.
George Weigel. "Clarifying 'Double Effect'." The Catholic Difference (February 23, 2011).
Reprinted with permission of George Weigel.
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George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Weigel is the author or editor of The End and the Beginning: John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God, Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring, The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explore.
George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.
Copyright © 2011 George Weigel
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