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From the Honest Question File: Could a Prenatal Child be a “Innocent Aggressor”?

It is no secret that abortion has come up once again as a fiery, game-changing political issue in recent years.  It was perhaps the central issue in the debate over health care reform (indeed, pro-life Democrats took full advantage and drove the last stages of the debate over the bill), it remains the focus of debates over the HHS mandate, and there are of course the dozens and dozens of recent state restrictions on abortion–at least one of which seems likely to trigger action from the Supreme Court.

Catholics must be ready to help shape our new discussion on abortion.  And we must do so in a way that draws people into the conversation–not only with respectful listening, but speaking in a way that is both coherent and sensitive. The now infamous Phoenix abortion case set us back in this regard.  The moral theology in the case was complex–which makes the decision to declare publicly that Sister McBride had excommunicated herself (and apparently decide to make it a major news story)  even more inexplicable.  The Church can do better.

And we must do better.  The new moment in the abortion debate demands it.  Our culture is clearly moving in a pro-life direction, but we must also honestly face the fact that huge majorities–including many hardcore pro-lifers–support direct abortion to save the life of the mother.  If the Church’s position can once again be marginalized as “anti-woman” because it will not permit direct abortion to save the life of the mother, it will have the effect of the aftermath of the Phoenix case–and we will be sitting on the sidelines of the debate. Our ability to participate in an American political debate is not, of course, a good reason to change or reject certain tenents of Catholic moral theology.  It is, however, a good reason for American Catholics to revisit some ideas that have been largely unexplored, and perhaps prematurely shut down.

Both Catholic moral theology, and moral philosophy in general, has invoked (for some time now) the concept of the “Innocent Aggressor.”  There are at least three kinds of innocent aggressors:

1.  Those who, through no fault of their own, are violent because of insanity or other mental condition.  Suppose someone puts drugs in another’s coffee which makes them temporarily and violently insane.

2.  Those who, through no fault of their own, are using violence in a way that they mistakenly believe to be just. Someone attacking the wrong person in a just war, for instance.

3.  Those children who cannot be said to be guilty of anything because they are not yet fully rational.  Think about brainwashed, eight-year-old child soldiers as an example.

Can we use deadly force in response to deadly violence from these individuals if they are threatening our lives and/or the lives of innocent others?  Both the tradition (and common sense) seems to answer in the affirmative.  But then why isn’t this same kind of reasoning applied to a prenatal child who is threatening the life of her mother? Is it simply because we imagine “bioethics” to be in a different category than “war and peace” with different methodologies?  Or is there a different reason?  Some say that Pius XI shut down conversation about this in Casti Connubii when he said (in #64) that the child is not an “unjust aggressor.”  Fair enough.  But the same can be said of all three examples above.  It could certainly be the be the case that a person is formally innocent, but nevertheless an aggressor to which one could justly respond with deadly force.

And if we can use this reasoning in the cases above, why can’t we use this reasoning in the case of the innocent prenatal child threatening her mother’s life? Is this wrongheaded thinking?  These are honest questions, and their answers are of the utmost importance.  They impact not only the real life and death situations involving women and their prenatal children (particularly in Catholic hospitals), but also our having a coherent and sensitive Catholic response to a question sure to come up in early and often in the coming abortion conversations, “What about direct abortion to save the life of the mother?”



  1. Camosy: “Can we use deadly force in response to deadly violence from these individuals if they are threatening our lives and/or the lives of innocent others? Both the tradition (and common sense) seems to answer in the affirmative. But then why isn’t this same kind of reasoning applied to a prenatal child who is threatening the life of her mother?”

    In the three cases you mention (mental condition, mistake, brainwashing), the aggressive actions are still acts of will. The mind behind the will may be very disordered indeed, but they are still acts of will. Hence they are formal aggressors, even if their personal responsibility for the aggression may be zero.

    But in the case, say, of an ectopic child, there is no act of will. Not on account of the will not yet being operational, but because the position of the child is not a result of any action of the child’s will. Hence, in such circumstances, and similar ones, the child cannot possibly be a formal aggressor.

    This was first pointed out by Catholic theologians over a century ago.

    • Paul, thank your your insights. I think almost everyone realizes that the prenatal child cannot be a formal (and therefore unjust) aggressor. But that’s not the question I’m asking. I’m asking about those who are material, but not formal, aggressors–and therefore innocent aggressors.

      Prenatal children fall into this category, but I don’t think you’ve shown that the other three examples do not. First, it is not clear why adding the detail that “they used their will”–if they are nevertheless clearly innocent–makes it acceptable to kill them in defense of self or another…especially when those who did not use their will (apparently?) may not be killed in defense. Second, even if you can explain why this is the case, it doesn’t get you out of the woods with the other two cases. For the child soldier’s will (read: capacity for moral decision making) is not only not fully developed, it has been radically altered and corrupt. Finally, your argument doesn’t appear to have any explanatory power with regard to the case of the temporarily insane person whose will is currently not functioning at all due to the influence of hard drugs.

      • Camosy: “First, it is not clear why adding the detail that ‘they used their will’ – if they are nevertheless clearly innocent – makes it acceptable to kill them in defense of self or another…especially when those who did not use their will (apparently?) may not be killed in defense.”

        Firstly: In order to be able to use permissible forms of (perhaps deadly) self-defense it must be in response to an act of unjust aggression. It requires an act of will for something to be unjust. If there is no act of will that goes along with the unjust aggression, then it’s not unjust aggression, but some other kind of act. In which case self-defense against unjust attack could not be used as a justification. Hence the concern with finding an act of will.

        (An example: suppose I and a fellow window-washer are working on a skyscraper. The scaffolding starts to give way, and I determine that its strength is sufficient to support one person, but not two. Can I push off my fellow window-washer on the grounds of self-defense against unjust aggression? That would be ludicrous. The force of gravity is the problem, and that is not subject to the will of either of us. There’s not been any aggression, far less unjust aggression.)

        Secondly: the word ‘innocent’ can be applied in two different ways. It can mean ‘this person simply did not do it’, or it can indicate ‘this person did do it, but is not morally culpable’. These roughly correspond to objective views (what actually happened), and subjective (moral) views (what the person thought was happening).

        In order for a self-defender to legitimately employ force they do not have to make any determination of the personal culpability of the attacker. All they have to do is to make a reasonable decision that the person has decided to attack them, and has no known just reason for doing so. (And they may defend themselves even they have a prior reasonable understanding that the aggressor is not personally culpable.)

        In the three cases that have been mentioned (mental condition, mistake, brainwashing), the aggressor may indeed be innocent in the sense of being personally not culpable. That kind of innocence does nothing to prevent the legitimacy of self-defense against such aggressors.

        On other points you brought up: In the case of a corrupted will, it is still a will. And in the case of an insane person, their will may be operating on (e.g.) the erroneous supposition that I am an alien monster from Tralfmadore deserving of death, but it is again still the operation of a will.

        • Paul, I must admit that I’m confused by your argument. On the one hand, you say that “self-defense [and, I assume, defense of another innocent person] must be in response to an act of unjust aggression”–but then you admit later on that one may use deadly force in the three cases I propose, even though they are obviously not “unjust” aggressors. Perhaps our disagreement is over what it means for someone to “do something.”

          It seems to me that the prenatal child “does something” in the same way that the totally insane person (whose will is simply not functional in any sense–not just “corrupted” as you seem to watch to describe it) and the child solider (who haven’t yet developed a free and operative will) “does something.” Their bodies are threatening the lives of innocent others, but their wills are doing no such thing. I’m open to being shown that we should treat them differently (and maybe the answer is to simple accept martyrdom in all cases, but I must admit my intuitions go in the other direction), but so far I haven’t been convinced.

          • Camosy: …”you admit later on that one may use deadly force in the three cases I propose, even though they are obviously not ‘unjust’ aggressors.”

            If someone decides to attack me, and I know of no just reason for them to attack me, then — for the purposes of whether self-defense can be used — they are unjust aggressors, and self defense is permissible. It’s as straightforward as that.

            Camosy: “the totally insane person (whose will is simply not functional in any sense”

            Camosy: “the child solider (who haven’t yet developed a free and operative will)”

            From what you say here, I’m guessing that your view of “will” is much more constrained than the one I am using. The definition of “will” is very basic: The will is in operation when decisions are being made, for any motive.

            That is what Aquinas uses, and the same idea goes back as far as Aristotle. For the operation of the will, the decisions don’t have to be based on accurate information, and can be made based on habit, or instinct. A child sucking its thumb in the womb is using its will. An insane person who thinks they are attacking an alien monster is using their will. A child soldier who has been brutalized into the view that killing everyone in a nearby village is a good thing is using their will, even if their only motive is to avoid being disapproved of by the brutalizer. The will can be in operation even in dreams. Someone “whose will is not functional in any sense” is going to have to be essentially brain dead — they are not going to be able to decide to do anything!

            Camosy: “…the child solider (who haven’t yet developed a free and operative will) ‘does something.’ Their bodies are threatening the lives of innocent others, but their wills are doing no such thing.”

            On the understanding of “will” that I describe above, the child soldiers certainly are using their will.

          • Paul, what is the difference (with respect to the will) between a prenatal child sucking her thumb in the womb and a prenatal child growing inside her mother’s body? At least right now, I don’t see any morally significant difference between the two.

          • Camosy: “…what is the difference (with respect to the will) between a prenatal child sucking her thumb in the womb and a prenatal child growing inside her mother’s body?”

            In the first case, I presume that a child instinctively feels that sucking their thumb feels good in some way, so they continue to it. The decision is to suck the thumb, and the motive is feeling good — hence it is an act of will. There are not too many opportunities for acts of will by a child in the womb. Basic motions is about it.

            In the second case I utterly fail to see how “growing” can be an act of will. Can a child use its will to decide not to grow? No. Growing is independent of the will. Even anencephalic children grow.

  2. I do not think this approach will work. The gospel is opposed to doing evil to anyone, even aggressors. We are supposed to love our enemies.

    On the other hand, action necessary to save a mothers life is morally good even if it might result in the unintended, unwanted, but anticipated death of the child. Pius XII pointed this out in the case of operations to eg remove cancers. Such operations are not abortions in the Catholic understanding.

    Hope this helps.

    God Bless

    • Thank you very much for your insight, Chris. Are you suggesting it would be murder to use deadly force in the three scenarios of innocent aggressors who are older human persons? Also, your words suggest that loving your enemies is never compatible with killing them. Many people believe this, but–to you use your language–it is not the “Catholic understanding.”

  3. Charlie,

    Let me start by saying that I agree with your terminology and your conclusion.

    The difficulty here is not that you want to categorize the prenatal child as an innocent aggressor. While I acknowledge that there is an official (but, debatable) prohibition of applying the title “unjust aggressor” to an unborn child, I believe your approach is both valid and correct. The problem with your position, as it relates to official Magisterial teaching, is that you are acknowledging that there may be an instance when a direct abortion is not only permissible, it may be preferable. You know the literature as well as anyone and also know that there is not a single instance in official Catholic teaching where a direct abortion is considered allowable. What you are really doing is stating that direct abortion is not an intrinsic evil because, at least in this one particular instance, it is justifiable.

    As I opened with, I do not think that your approach is wrongheaded. In fact, I agree that this is a direct abortion and the mother’s duty to preserve the sanctity of her own life may allow for her to choose to defend herself against an (again, correctly termed “innocent”) aggressor. Of course, it would also be within the tradition for the woman to choose to follow the official stance and risk both her and her prenatal child’s life. It would still remain a choice not a command to abort. To me, the real question at issue here is, “Is direct abortion an intrinsic evil?” If it is, this whole discussion is moot. If it is not, you just opened a serious can of worms.

    • Hi Corey. Hmmm. Isn’t the argument that a direct abortion is always wrong come from it being an example of aiming at the death of an innocent person? But perhaps a prenatal child can be formally innocent but also be a material aggressor? If so, then perhaps in some rare cases a direct abortion is not an example of aiming at the death of an innocent person…at least in both a material and formal sense. And the can isn’t that big after all.

      • My understanding of an intrinsic evil is that neither the character of the acted upon (in this case the unborn – regardless of his or her innocence or aggression), the circumstances (the threat to the woman’s life), nor the intention of the actor (here the woman seeking to preserve her own life, not necessarily intending the death of her child) have a role in the overall moral determination. There is something in the inherent nature of the act that would preclude it ever being justified. Quoting #2271 of the Catechism, “Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.” (Emphasis added.) Your argument makes it rather clear that the abortion is not the end, but it does remain the means. In short, when it comes to the official teaching on direct abortion, the “why” and the “who” are not relevant factors within the Tradition; all that matters is the “what.”

        So, this is my perception of the argument is as follows: The official teaching is that a direct abortion is always and unequivocally wrong. You are making a case that suggests that in some very extreme and rare circumstances a direct abortion is permissible. Now, as I stated in my initial post, I agree with you. However, you have moved direct abortions out of the category of “intrinsically evil acts” or you have simply eliminated the category altogether. I believe this change to be acceptable and correct, but it is also relevant and will cause significant discomfort for many people.

        • Hi Corey…I think I’m not being clear enough in what I tried to say in response to you. The teaching on what is intrinsically evil about abortions so described is not that they are an example of direct killing, but rather of direct killing of an innocent person. (Direct killing, as you know, is not prohibited by the tradition.) So the change would not with respect to the very category of intrinsically evil (this would indeed be a huge can of worms), or the evaluation of the overwhelming majority of abortions as intrinsically (but often not “very”) evil, but with regard to a very small number of direct abortions now being considered something other than intrinsically evil because they do not aim at the death of a (formally and materially) innocent person.

          • Hello again (and I promise for the last time in this thread) Charlie,

            I see what you are saying. It appears to me that the ending of an “innocent” life is implied in the Catholic theological understanding of “abortion”. And, you do not seem to be contradicting that idea. If anything, you are upholding and extending the idea. However, it remains true that direct abortions are prohibited and it is considered evil to end an innocent life. With that being said, I believe that your thought process is correct. I can accept your differentiation between formal and material innocence. Though I know I was met with immediate disagreement when I raised the point in our initial (group) conversation (due to the passage you quote above from Casti Connubbi), it seems to me that you are (rightly) shifting from a discussion of direct abortion to one of self-defense/justified killing. Maybe it is just my inability to see beyond established terminology and categories, but from my perspective, it will be/is difficult to maintain that the situation you are describing is a non-intrinsically evil direct abortion.

            My hope is that you do find the language to support your conclusion. To your base question, “Can a prenatal child be considered an unjust and also innocent aggressor?” I say yes. To that end, I think we are in agreement that the aggressor, regardless of innocence, can justly be killed. I just believe that the proper framework is self-defense/justified killing. With that being said, I am glad that my formal engagement with this topic is confined to this discussion and others like it. I applaud your efforts to tackle the issue with the directness that you are.

  4. Charles,

    I am convinced that it is always wrong to intend to kill a human person.

    It is sometimes the case that actions necessary to save a human life might have the unintended effect of resulting in the loss of human life.

    It is always morally wrong to seek to abort an unborn child because, by definition, abortion is the intent to kill. On the other hand, operations genuinely necessary to save a mothers life are not abortions: the moral object chosen is an act necessary to save a life. For example, in rare cases, it may be necessary to induce labour or surgically remove a fetus; we can often keep such fetuses alive but sometimes we lack the medical technology to do so. That is not killing; it’s merely admitting we lack the technology to save both lives.

    I think a careful analysis of the moral object is very helpful here – see Kaveny or Finnis on Craniotomy.

    Here is what Pope Pius XII taught :

    Deliberately we have always used the expression ‘direct attempt on the life of an innocent person,’ ‘direct killing.’ Because if, for example, the saving of the life of the future mother, independently of her pregnant condition, should urgently require a surgical act or other therapeutic treatment which would have as an accessory consequence, in no way desired or intended, but inevitable, the death of the fetus, such an act could no longer be called a direct attempt on an innocent life. Under these conditions the operation can be lawful, like other similar medical interventions—granted always that a good of high worth is concerned, such as life, and that it is not possible to postpone the operation until after the birth of the child, nor to have recourse to other efficacious remedies.

    Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 43 (1951), p. 855

    God Bless

  5. I’ve been following your interesting back and forth with Harris. I’m curious: Once you concede the idea of an “innocent aggressor” of the type you have in mind, how do you avoid drawing the conclusions of Thomson’s analogy (i.e., Thomson’s Violinist)? If you allow that the child can be an ‘innocent aggressor’, can you easily limit the idea’s applicability to only those cases where the child is some sort of direct and immediate threat to my life? Might I not simply conclude that the child has, through no fault of its own (innocent), taken up residence in a manner that will cause me hardship (aggressor), and that I am under no obligation to support the child. Your hypothetical case is obviously more pressing (i.e., I’m going to die), but does that mean its logic ends when my life is not under immediate threat?

    • LOA, I think you ask a very important question, but I’m not sure it applies in this instance. I think Thomson’s analogy “works” (at least as an analogy) only in cases of indirect abortion, where death is not part of the object of the act. And that’s really the question I’m asking about here–about situations where death is part of the object.

  6. One of the things I think many folks struggle with is the analogy between a fetus and an agent acting as aggressor, whether will-full or not. In each of the examples you invoke, the word “violent” is included, and I think there is an instinctive pushback against the suggestion that the pregnancy constitutes an act of violence against the mother.

    I’d like to offer another analogue, in the hope that it might provide further insight.

    Imagine a police officer is injured in the line of duty (let’s say, during a hostage situation), such that he is immobilized from the waist down and lying in the street, unable to move. He looks up and sees a truck driving towards him at full speed, but the driver appears not to see him. He still has access to his firearm. It seems nearly everyone would agree that the cop should be permitted to fire at the tires to try and halt the progress of the truck–and, if in being successful, he should accidentally cause the disabled vehicle to crash, killing the driver, it would be a foreseen but unintended consequence. But the question is, may the officer fire directly at the truck driver? (Putting aside the practical challenges of firing a pistol from the prone position at a moving target the size of a human head/torso a hundred or more feet away.)

    Could the truck driver, who through no willful act of his own other than driving his truck, which is by definition what truck drivers do, be considered “an innocent aggressor” a la your classification? Would we permit a police officer to fire at the driver in that circumstance, since he poses an imminent threat to the officer’s life–not by undertaking any uniquely violent act, but simply by doing what he does?

    Michael Bayer

    • Thanks for this, Michael. Your example of the police officer (like Paul Connors’ example of the co-worker on the scaffolding above) gets at something basic about this: even if someone is an imminent threat, they cannot be targeted for direct killing. Charlie’s distinction between being a formal aggressor and a material aggressor is helpful, but I think ultimately unhelpful. Let me note that, in this example, if the driver were in fact targeting the officer, we would have no qualms about the officer defending himself with a direct shot if necessary (though he should respond with the least force possible).

      Let me add that in Charlie’s 3 examples of an “innocent aggressor” (above in the main post), each of those is a case in which, as we see it described that way, we see exactly why the will is limited and the aggression is, in fact, innocent. Of course, if we were being attacked by someone who was only attacking us because his coffee was drugged, it is very unlikely we would know that in the moment. We would defend ourselves in the way we deemed appropriate (split-second analysis being what it is), as though that attack were rationally conceived. It is only in retrospect that we might say, “If only I had known that he was innocent of any real violent intent towards me.” (This is one of the great problems and great tragedies around police killings of the mentally ill.)

      The case of the unborn child is necessarily different, in part because the innocence is self-evident. And although the threat to the life of the mother can be very very real, I am not sure that the concept of “aggressor” rings true. Especially thinking with these examples of the co-worker on the scaffolding and the truck driver, it seems to me that being a threat or a danger to another is not the same as being an aggressor.

      • Dana, suppose I have known for some time that the person using deadly violence is totally psychotic and acting with a will that has been destroyed by hard core drugs. In fact, perhaps the reason I know this that I am that person’s doctor. Suppose this person breaks into my office and starts spraying the area with bullets. May I use deadly force to resist his attack? His innocence is self-evident.

        • Charles,

          Well obviously this is, in one important dimension, a question of semantics… but there’s an unmistakable difference of moral category underlying the label.

          I still think the analogy of a person whose will is compromised, but who undertakes an obviously violent action, the intent of which, were it carried out by a moral agent, we would necessarily describe as an action with the object of causing harm (i.e. firing a gun at another person)… is problematic, because the act itself is one that has as its object the taking of human life.

          I really believe that we can’t equate pregnancy with firing a gun, even if the moral agent has less than full volition.

          The state of being a fetus, and doing nothing but gestating accordingly, is more akin to a truck driver who is simply driving a truck, an action which, in itself, does not have the destruction of human life as its object.

        • I don’t think even the guy’s long term doctor could know all that with confidence (really? his will completely destroyed?). Obviously, the doctor would feel justified in defending himself with force, even if he killed the man. (Though he should seriously question the care he gave him, if he knew he had no will and didn’t get him better help.) But still, I think that doctor would be more likely to be saying to himself “There is a good chance he does not know what he is doing” than “His innocence is self-evident.”

          I’d like to know from you whether the officer can shoot the truck driver directly.

          • Although I candidly concede deep ambivalence about it, I fall on the side of being opposed to allowing the police officer to shoot the truck driver.

            But that’s in keeping with my belief that one should not procure a direct abortion (a medical procedure with the explicit purpose of, not simply foreseen but intended consequence of, terminating the pregnancy). It comes down to the whole problem of permitting an evil in order to prevent an evil, and I don’t think that’s justified.

        • Paul, I see (1) and (2) as intimately connected. The reason one can never have just cause to kill an innocent person, even if they threaten one’s life or the life of another, is simply because such an aggressor is not culpable for his actions.

          Furthermore, in response to your other comment, if there is a sense that a “will” is present if the prenatal child sucking her thumb in a way that it isn’t present as she grows inside her mother (a questionable distinction, it seems to me), it has absolutely no moral bearing at all…which, I take it, is our concern in this conversation. So if a totally insane person attacks you or a loved one, if they are using their “will” at all, they are using it in the same way a prenatal child sucks their thumb–that is, they use their will (again, if this is even the right way to talk about it) in a morally irrelevant way. So I’m still not sure why this is a morally relevant distinction for purposes of distinguishing between the prenatal child and the totally insane adult.

          • Thanks Bill for the detailed post and the Fr Rohnheimer (an excellent theologian) link. Will chew on that !


            I would have thought that licit moral object in seeking to defend oneself against a violent offender, even an innocent agressor, is defense, not intent to kill. I believe that Aquinas came to the same conclusion: it is wrong to intend to kill even in self defense. Although in a firefight or other defensive struggle one’s use of legitimate force might unintentionally result in death.

            God Bless

          • Camosy: “I see (1) and (2) as intimately connected. The reason one can never have just cause to kill an innocent person, even if they threaten one’s life or the life of another, is simply because such an aggressor is not culpable for his actions.”

            Since the discussion has been in the context of self-defense, it is perhaps worth remembering that legitimate self-defense does not set out with the goal of killing the aggressor. Rather it is recognized that, under some circumstances, the level of violence proportionately necessary to preserve one’s own life may turn out to be enough to kill the aggressor. Also, the violence used is in no way aimed at being some kind of some kind of penalty, or punishment, or retribution, or deterrence. So I simply see no way in which the violence used must necessarily be dependent on the culpability of the aggressor. (You assert otherwise, but without explanation.)

            Certainly since at least the time of Aquinas, Catholic teaching has repeatedly seen no essential difficulty in permitting deadly self-defense against (e.g.) the insane. As Aquinas points out: “Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.”

            Camosy: ” if there is a sense that a ‘will’ is present if the prenatal child sucking her thumb in a way that it isn’t present as she grows inside her mother”

            To be precise, and to keep things clear, it’s not just the “presence” of a will that I have been referring to: rather, I am saying that sucking a thumb is an specific act of will, and that growing isn’t.

            As to why will is significant:

            In the case of purely physical events (an earthquake, a famine due to lack of rain, an infectious virus, unexpectedly weak scaffolding) that cause us life-threatening problems, we are never permitted to kill people in order to alleviate those kind of problems. That’s because each person is infinitely more important than anything purely physical.

            But human acts are not of a purely physical nature. They transcend it.

            Now consider the case where something about a human causes a potentially deadly problem for some other human. It’s necessary to distinguish between problems that have their origin in the purely physical, and those that have their origin in a human act. As said, if the origin is in the purely physical then we are not allowed to kill. But if the problem lies in a human act, then we can have a clash between the good of two humans, and two humans are of comparable value.

            How do we distinguish between acts that are purely physical, and acts that are human? Acts that are human are acts that are willed.

            Hence the importance of will in all this.

      • DD: The case of the unborn child is necessarily different, in part because the innocence is self-evident.

        MB: Okay, but I invoked the truck driver example because his innocence is equally self-evident. So I am not sure the case is “necessarily different” unless you have another facet you are not explicitly articulating. If we eliminate the “part” you reference, i.e. that “the innocence is self-evident,” what is the remainder that makes the cases “necessarily different?”

        DD: I am not sure that the concept of “aggressor” rings true. Especially thinking with these examples of the co-worker on the scaffolding and the truck driver, it seems to me that being a threat or a danger to another is not the same as being an aggressor.

        MB: Well this is the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Whether another person who, by his/her action, however un-intended by the will, poses a direct threat to our life. That’s precisely what we’re attempting to disentangle.

        • Michael, sorry. I think the timing of our responses may have created unnecessary confusion. (When I started my response, I meant it for Charlie, and your next one was not there yet.) I am pretty certain you and I are in agreement (direct targeting not permissible for child or truck driver). I’m curious what Charlie Camosy (who is arguing for direct targeting of the unborn child as an “innocent aggressor”) would be willing to target the truck driver on the same terms.

          • Dana, to be clear, I am not “arguing for the direct targeting of the unborn child as an aggressor.” I’m asking us to explore why, if at all, we should treat the cases (perhaps with some slightly different details to get around the objections raised) I propose differently from a prenatal child who threatens her mother’s life. One reaction might be that we need to refuse to aim at death in all cases. That seem to be to be a better response that what I’ve been hearing so far, which is try to impute agency, and even some level of guilt, to the three examples I proposed. That seems to be wrongheaded. A child solider’s will, to the extent that it is functioning at all, is innocent. A person you know to be insane, and who has psychotic episodes brought on by reactions to hard drugs which render the will nonfunctional, is innocent. The prenatal child is innocent. Why should we treat them differently?

  7. Isn’t the question of intention of paramount importance? It seems to me that inducing labor before an unborn child reaches the point of viability is considered an abortion in Catholic thought and therefore illicit, while inducing labor at the verge of viability or later is considered. But when the mother’s life is in danger, inducing labor to save the mother’s life seems to me to be the intention of the act no matter at what stage of pregnancy. Of course, this might still mean that a suction abortion would be impermissible in the early stages of pregnancy, since it could be considered a direct assault on the unborn child. But any abortion method that did not directly kill the unborn would seem to me to be permissible because the death of the unborn child was not willed.

    “Pro-lifers” often say that what is really wanted in abortion is a dead baby. However, in the Phoenix abortion case, the mother very much wanted the baby. It seemed to me at the time the Phoenix abortion case was discussed, one very prominent pro-lifer (whom I will not mention by name, since I may be wrong) more or less hinted that the Phoenix abortion was justified because there was no intention to kill the unborn child. I believe Elizabeth Anscombe’s thinking on intention was relevant, but I do not pretend to be an expert.

    It has long seemed to me that the prevailing opinion among Catholic bioethicists (based on the work of T. Lincoln Bouscaren) is considerably less compelling than the case for certain abortions when the life of the mother is in danger. The claim that one is really removing a damaged fallopian tube that just happens to have a living embryo attached to it that will inevitably die is not equivalent to direct abortion, while removing the attached embryo directly would be direct abortion seems to me to rely on rather simpleminded conceptions of direct and indirect.

  8. Charlie,
    Thanks for bringing this up. I hope the moderator will let me make the following points.

    If the last century or so is any indication, debates on these matters can be interminable. I think the much-needed progress requires (besides prayer and hard work) greater clarity and consensus on several key points, including the state of Catholic doctrine.
    1. The meaning of “direct abortion.” Current debates are between those who as a physical category concerning caused effects, and those who see it as a properly moral category regarding human acts directed to ends. I think we need to be clear that direct abortion is morally direct abortion, that is (following EV 57) an act that seeks the death of the child as an end itself or a means to a further end; it is not just the performance of a physical behavior pattern that naturally tends (by “natural teleology”) to cause the death of the child.
    2. The meaning of Intrinsically Evil Acts. I think holding strictly to the approach of VS 79-81 is the way forward, where an IEA is one evil by its object (regardless of remote/further ends besides the proximate end, and besides those circumstances that are not principal conditions of the object).
    3. The meaning of intention. Given that the more traditionally naturalistic (~physicalist tending) moralists will attack any reference to intention as Abelardian subjectivism, it is important that “intention” is spoken of with great precision and foresight to immunize against these attacks. It must be emphasized that intention is an act of the will with regard to an end; that the will is the rational appetite that gets its object from reason; and that reason is a naturally truth-attaining power that grasps the relevant matter and circumstances of the act. Thus intentional human acts are objective in the sense of being grounded in reason and reality.
    4. The object that specifies the act. A complex and debated topic, but I would say it is basically the Exterior Act insofar as it is ordered to the end sought by the agent. I think this is the best piece in print
    5. The order of reason that measures the good and evil of human acts (granted it is ultimately the Eternal Law). I would say that, for Aquinas and in truth, the best way to see this is as the order of the virtues. (For him, what is against right reason, is against virtue, is against natural law.) In the cases debated here, the relevant virtue is justice. Is an injustice done?
    6. Since we are talking about a range of cases with the same crucial features, it may be helpful to use a heading like “Vital Conflict” ( which is already known) In such cases, (i) the life of both the mother and child are at immediate risk of death from a pathology in pregnancy, (ii) the child (whose continued growth will soon kill the mother) can’t be saved, but the mother can, (iii) but only through a procedure involving what could be called “physically direct killing.”
    7. The key point is whether the object and species of the act of the doctor is not just physically direct but also “morally direct killing,” a subset of homicide? I think not; otherwise the Catholic position will be that a lot of savable mothers must be left to die for the sake of their unsaveable unborn children.
    8. Does the state of Catholic teaching require one to hold that such medical interventions are intrinsically evil? Absolutely not, as I will make clear below.
    9. Does the state of Catholic teaching allow and even encourage moralists to argue that these are not cases of morally direct killing? Absolutely! See the Vatican-approved German adult Catechism (which caused a stir not so much because of its conclusions on these cases but because of the proportionalist reasoning, used in the VS timeframe). See also the preface of the Rhonheimer book on Vital Conflicts, which explains how it was written at the request of the CDF, and published at its encouragement, so moralists could debate these matters (it was an attempt to resolve the mess caused by the above catechism). See especially pp.11-12 of the Spring 2012 NCBQ, where Rhonheimer discusses a letter written to him in March 2012 by then Prefect Levada of the CDF, at the request of then Pope Benedict XVI, which (against public claims that Rhonheimer was misrepresenting the origins of the VC book, affirmed he wrote at the request of the CDF) thanked him for his writings, stated the freedom of moralists to write on them, and encouraged him to continue defending his views on these matters.

    The Prefect also wrote that is letter can be shared with interested parties.

    The bottom line is that, in spite of efforts by some to shut down arguments from those who disagree that the reasonable/moral thing to do is to let the savable mother die, the CDF (under JPII and BXVI) definitely encouraged moralists to explore ways to explain how it is licit or even encouraged to save the savable mother (and that this does not require exceptions to the prohibition against the intrinsically evil act of abortion, properly understood).

  9. This is too easy.

    You ask:

    “Can we use deadly force in response to deadly violence from these [innocent aggressor] individuals if they are threatening our lives and/or the lives of innocent others? Both the tradition (and common sense) seems to answer in the affirmative. But then why isn’t this same kind of reasoning applied to a prenatal child who is threatening the life of her mother?”

    I answer:

    No, because the child in the womb is not threatening the life of her mother with violence.

  10. Charles,
    I dont find your argument about the innocent aggressor particularly helpful because we are allowed to resist deadly force regardless of the culpability of the aggressor. And I find it difficult to classify a fetus as an aggressor, regardless of its potential effect on the mother or her health.
    Perhaps thinking about this situation may be helpful. We cannot kill another human just because they have a fatal disease which is 100% contagious. What this suggests, is that we need to support aggressive medical research on how to treat an ectopic pregnancy through other means than killing the fetus.

  11. It seems to me that the question Charlie is raising could be better put this way: “Can there be such a thing as a passive aggressor?”

    Questions of intention are, I agree, an essential element to describing human action. But the case of the unborn child (or of the window washers on faulty scaffolding) is not about an action which endangers another person, but about how the very existence of one person causes danger to another, apart from any action, culpable or not.

    In the case of “innocent aggression,” we can theoretically and perhaps even practically distinguish the person’s life from the aggression. And so resistance can be aimed at ending the aggression, which may also mean ending the person’s life, although that is not the end of the act. But in the case where the danger arises from the life itself, there can be no theoretical or practical distinction between an act and a person. The only way to address the danger is by ending the life that causes the danger. That seems to me to be a very significant difference.

    Charlie seems to actually be asking whether we can define someone’s life as aggression, because that life causes danger to someone else. Hence– “passive aggression.”

    At any rate, this is a case of tragedy, and whatever description we give ought to acknowledge that. An innocent human endangers another innocent human, simply by virtue of their both being alive. Clarity in thinking through that situation is valuable, but it’s important to keep in mind that no terminology is going to provide us with a way out of that.


  1. Bioethicist Calls Unborn “Innocent Aggressors” | William M. Briggs - […] Christian Ethics at the (officially certified) Catholic Fordham University. In the on-line journal Catholic Moral Theology, Camosy penned the …
  2. Ectopic Pregnancy and the Principle of Double Effect | Vox Nova - […] on my FaceBook page to an blog post by William Briggs responding to an article by Charles Camosy on …

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