Is abortion ever allowed for Catholics? For a 10-year-old rape victim?

Pregnant teen Credit Thanatip S Shutterstock CNA Thanatip S/Shutterstock.

The Catholic Church teaches that human life is sacred and must be respected and protected from the moment of conception. Following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, Catholics — and pro-life Americans in general — are facing new questions about abortion in certain situations, such as the story of a 10-year-old rape victim who traveled from Ohio to Indiana to obtain one.

Here is the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion.

May a Catholic woman ever get an abortion?

Abortion is “never permitted,” according to the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,” published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). 

The U.S. bishops go on to define abortion as the “directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus.”

In other words, the Catholic Church forbids any action that has, as its sole and direct purpose, the ending of human life in the womb. Abortion is prohibited regardless of whether an unborn baby is viable — or can survive outside the womb. 

Instead, the bishops say, the unborn should be protected from the moment of conception.

“Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion, which, in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo,” they add.

What about abortion for 10-year-old rape victims?

Catholics should embrace life — not the destruction of it — even in the most difficult situations, Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, the director of education and staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told CNA. The center, located in Broomall, Pennsylvania, is dedicated to upholding the dignity of the human person in health care and biomedical research.

“Encouraging a direct abortion never offers an authentic solution for a young woman facing a crisis,” Pacholczyk explained. “When a 10 year old girl becomes pregnant from rape, responding to her trauma by offering a second trauma makes no sense.”

“It exacerbates the original act of violence with yet more violence,” he said of abortion. “It plays off of the emotional vulnerability we all feel whenever tragedy strikes home.”

Pacholczyk pointed to a different solution for a victim facing a situation like this: love and support.

“What a young woman needs in such a situation is the support of family and friends, along with the reassurance that ‘we can get through this together,’” he said. “What she really needs is the love, hope and compassion that buoys up anyone facing uncertainty about her own future.”

Support, he said, can make all the difference.

“Young women who have had to walk this hard road, when supported generously by their families and friends, will often look back on what happened and express their relief that they were not offered the chance to destroy their own child following a sexual assault,” he said. 

He referenced the recent story of Kathy Barnette, who unsuccessfully ran as a Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania in 2022. Barnette was conceived in rape when her mother, Mamie Jo, was just 11 years old. Mamie Jo chose life.

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Pacholczyk emphasized that the child in the womb is innocent.

“By promoting abortion following a rape, we also take aim at the wrong target,” he said. “The child in the womb did not perpetrate the sexual assault, and should not be treated as if he or she did so.”

“Rather than targeting an innocent bystander, we should target the man who carried out the assault,” he concluded. “If efforts are not made to identify and apprehend the offender, who sometimes may be a family member or relative, an abortion may end up paving the way for the perpetrator to ‘cover his tracks’ and continue abusing a minor who should instead be provided with safety and protection from further abuse.”

What about ectopic pregnancies and cases where a woman’s life is at risk?

A Catholic woman is allowed to undergo life-saving treatment — even if it means that her unborn baby will die indirectly as a result of that treatment, according to the U.S. bishops’ directives. The intention and action, here, is to save the mother’s life. It is not to end her baby’s life through abortion, or “the directly intended termination of pregnancy.”

“Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child,” the directives read.

The bishops also address ectopic, or extrauterine, pregnancies that are life-threatening for the mother.

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“In case of extrauterine pregnancy, no intervention is morally licit which constitutes a direct abortion,” the directives say.

Instead, for ectopic pregnancies, Catholic medical experts agree that women can undergo a partial salpingectomy, which is the removal of a portion of the Fallopian tube where the unborn baby is located, the National Catholic Register reports. The intent and the direct action is to remove damaged tissue, not to end an unborn baby’s life. 

According to the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “Continuation of such a pregnancy cannot result in the survival of a baby.”

In other situations, the directives state that labor may be induced for a “proportionate reason” after the unborn baby is viable.

Can Catholic hospitals provide abortion?

The bishops’ directives stress that Catholic health care institutions are not to provide, or in any way help provide, abortion procedures. However, the bishops add, Catholic health care workers should provide help and comfort to women suffering after abortion.

“Catholic health care providers should be ready to offer compassionate physical, psychological, moral, and spiritual care to those persons who have suffered from the trauma of abortion,” the directives read.

Pacholczyk concluded: “Catholic healthcare always respects the equal dignity of the mother and child, and acknowledges that every pregnancy involves at least two individuals, two patients, with the explicit aim of providing outstanding medical care, as much as possible, to both.” 

What does the Catholic catechism say about abortion?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which summarizes Church teaching, recognizes the intrinsic dignity and worth of the unborn. 

“Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception,” the catechism reads. “From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.” 

The Church considers abortion a “crime against human life” and obtaining an abortion – or helping someone else obtain an abortion – are grounds for automatic excommunication.

“Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law,” the catechism says.

At the same time, the Catholic Church offers forgiveness and mercy for those involved with abortion.

“The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy,” the catechism reads, but instead “makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.”

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