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?”