How well does the Catholic church understand its own teaching on abortion?

This is well worth noting before it passes over us, on the question of abortion in the south. James P Mackey is visiting professor at the school of religions and theology at Trinity College. And he’s been looking back at some of his old Catholic textbooks from Maynooth:

The Roman Catholic hierarchy has formally stated its position on abortion by declaring definitively that the direct and intentional killing of the unborn is immoral. Yet, my dog-eared old Maynooth textbook tells me otherwise.

Abortion is there defined as the expulsion of a living but non-viable foetus from the womb. The expulsion is then further defined as direct abortion, if the means used are such as to kill the foetus by the very nature of the act; as in craniotomy, for example.

But it is indirect abortion, if the means used have as their immediate and direct effect the prior purpose of protecting the life of the mother; even if it is clearly foreseen that the act will result in the expulsion of a not yet viable foetus.

Hence the first legal rule: “Indirect abortion is permissible for sufficiently grave reasons.”

Next, taking the example of the induction of premature labour as a case of indirect abortion, my trusty old textbook informs me: “if the means used (eg induction of premature labour) have as their immediate and direct effect the health of the mother, although it is foreseen that this means the expulsion of the foetus”, then, the second, more precise legal formulation reads: “The induction of premature labour and indirect abortion are permissible for sufficiently grave reasons.”

This legal ruling might have been written specifically for the tragic Halappanavar case. Especially since no hard and fast distinction between threats to the health and threats to the life of the mother is entertained.

Now, as Mackey goes on to point out, the case of suicide is a different kettle of fish. But the frenetic stand off between pro life and pro choice lobbyists is obscuring where the line might legitimately be drawn.

Arguably, if the Church had been clearer and more up front about the detail of its own doctrine, the conversation might have been less hysterical, and believers might have felt more empowered to step up to their own ethic responsibilities with regard to the mother.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty