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Column: Abortion, self-defense, slavery and the well-formed conscience

John Donald O'Shea

John Donald O'Shea is a retired circuit court judge and a regular columnist.

The sections dealing with abortion in the Roman Catholic catechism provide no exceptions allowing abortion, even in cases where the pregnancy threatens the mother with imminent death, and even in cases of rape or incest. But do other chapters provide exceptions? Perhaps. But such exceptions as might be provided in the chapters on conscience and self-defense, are narrow.

So, can a woman ever be justified in taking the life of her unborn child? (Note: we are discussing morality here; not “law.”).

On this matter, the Church’s catechism provides useful “guidance” to both those who’d say, “Yes,” and those who’d say, “No!”

I use the word “guidance” carefully. In the last instance, the catechism provides rules to guide the formation of the “well-formed” conscience. Why? Because ultimately every human must act in conformity with his/her own “well-formed” conscience — especially in grave or blood matters. On issues such as “conscience,” that catechism embodies the best analysis of popes, churchman, and theologians over the course of 2000 years, as well as scriptures.

The Catechism teaches that “conscience” requires every person to discern whether his proposed course of conduct will be good or evil. That judgment takes account of all relevant circumstances surrounding his/her act. It requires the person to utilize the means available, under the exigencies of the circumstances, to make an informed judgment. Once that effort has been made, the person must always obey the certain judgment of his/ her own conscience — regardless of what others may say.

"Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. (§1776)

In addition to its teachings on conscience, the catechism also gives guidance on the issue of self-defense.

Under the secular principle of self-defense, a woman can do what is both reasonable and necessary to avoid the immediate threat of death or great bodily harm to herself. This principle of self-defense has been recognized in all societies from time immemorial and finds cautious support in the Church’s catechism.

“Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow. … Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.” §2264.

But can one incapable of “intending,” be an “aggressor?” Theologians have argued that issue through the millennia. Can a woman act in self-defense against the “unintended” acts of a fetus where there is a high probability that that pregnancy will cause her death? Few would deny her the right to use deadly force in self-defense to preserve her own life from death at the hands of a totally insane killer — a person incapable of intending to kill her, or even knowing what he is about to do. Is she not “bound to take more care of her own life? Is this not truly the realm of conscience?

Then there are sections on rape and slavery. Where conception occurs from rape or incest, because the crime does not end with penile withdrawal where pregnancy results, it is certainly arguable that the woman can defend herself and do what is reasonable and necessary to end the rape, forced pregnancy and enslavement. The Church recognizes that rape/incest “causes grave damage that can mark the victim for life. It is always an intrinsically evil act.“ (§2356)

“§2414. The seventh commandment forbids … the enslavement of human beings … It is a sin … against … fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to [slavery].”

The sections on abortion, rape and slavery provide no remedies; but must be read together with those on conscience and self-defense.

The choice to act in self-defense, in the face of immediate death or great bodily harm , is the gravest choice that any woman can ever called upon to make. Especially here, she “must obey” her well-formed conscience. The catechism teaches, that conscience that “ever calls her to love,” permits the woman to love” her own life more, than that of her would-be killer [§2264). If she has done her best, under the circumstances, to fully inform her conscience, the Church teaches she is not culpable even if her judgment of conscience is wrong.

“If the ignorance is invincible, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to the person.” §1793.

John Donald O'Shea, of Moline, is a retired circuit judge and a regular columnist.

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