The "Life of the Mother" Exception

In the comment from Rev. Robert C. Baker I shared below, he states in part:

"The world was changing. Because believers also use the language of the world, which brings with it ideas and concepts foreign to the faith, they begin to reflect and write on their faith in a different way."

The concept of a "life of the mother exception" commonly used in both abortion and contraception arguments is a prime example of modern theologians co-opting the language of modern culture, bringing with it ideas and concepts foreign to the Christian faith.

I confess that I once fell into this same error in thinking when discussing the principle of conflicting absolutes here on this very blog. I used the example of an ectopic (tubal) pregnancy as being a case when "abortion" is the "lesser evil." This goes to show just how far this faulty modern epistemology has taken us. This has led to one of the most egregious errors modern theologians in the Missouri Synod have fallen into.

Let me start out with this statement: It is never, I repeat NEVER, justified for us to take it upon ourselves to end one life so that another may live. However, the death of an unborn child may be a tragically unavoidable byproduct ("double effect") of medical procedures necessary to prevent the death of the mother. It is absolutely crucial, though, to distinguish any such procedures from "abortion" because it is not the intent of any such procedure to kill the baby.

This important distinction will seem too subtle to some without further explanation of the principle of double effect.

We may not do evil so that good may come. But this does not forbid doing a necessary good work even when an evil secondary effect may result. Taking this essential Christian doctrine into account, the principle of double effect would, for example, justify the common practice of continuing to give pain relief medication to a terminally ill person near the end of life, even though such medication may hasten the death of the individual through suppression of respiration, etc. We would never equate such end-of-life medical care as murder. My sister has been in this situation as an intensive care nurse too many times to count.

To borrow a brief explanation from a very instructive Roman Catholic explanation of this issue:

However, if medical treatment or surgical operation, necessary to save a mother's life, is applied to her organism (though the child's death would, or at least might, follow as a regretted but unavoidable consequence), it should not be maintained that the fetal life is thereby directly attacked. Moralists agree that we are not always prohibited from doing what is lawful in itself, though evil consequences may follow which we do not desire. The good effects of our acts are then directly intended, and the regretted evil consequences are reluctantly permitted to follow because we cannot avoid them.

In the case of ectopic pregnancy, the principle of double effect would justify a salpingostomy, which restores the fallopian tube by re-sectioning the obstructed portion. Without this medical procedure, the fallopian tube is at extreme risk of rupturing and causing the mother to bleed to death. Ideally this surgical procedure would also include an attempt to induce the embryo that has become lodged in the fallopion tube to implant into the uterus. A salpingostomy aims at preserving the mother’s life (the desired effect). Although it almost always results in the loss of the child’s life (an undesirable second effect), it does not use the destruction of the child’s life as an evil means toward the good end of preserving the mother’s life.

Abortion is NEVER a moral option.

Now, contrast this with with the LCMS CTCR opinion from 1984. The influences of the Twentieth Century Project are painfully obvious in this horribly flawed statement:

We have emphasized as strongly as possible the protection to which the unborn child is entitled. We do not overlook, however, the fact that in the gestation and birth of children mothers bear by far the greatest burdens. The child's life is dependent upon his mother in a unique manner, a manner which calls for an act of self-spending on her part. Indeed, we may even say that in the manner of human gestation and birth we see a deeper truth than our attachment to independence and individualism can reach. The life-giving burden carried by mothers, and only by mothers, must be kept clearly in view throughout our ethical reflection. This fact alone gives the mother's claims a certain preeminence in those cases where the life of the unborn child and the equal life of the mother come into conflict. ... In the rare situations of conflict we must recognize the permissibility of abortion. Despite the progress of medical science, there are still unusual circumstances in which a mother will die if an abortion is not performed. ...Even in such circumstances a mother may choose to risk her own life as an act of love, but such an act of self-giving cannot be required. It must be freely given, not imposed.

This error is even included in the most recent Synodical Explanation of the Small Catechism on the Fifth Commandment:

"Since abortion takes a human life, it is not a moral option except to prevent the death of another person, the mother."

This is a HORRIBLE statement. The "life of the mother" exception is based on a fallacy that has been used to justify countless abortions.

“Protection of the life of the mother as an excuse for an abortion is a smoke screen. In my 36 years of pediatric surgery I have never known of one instance where the child had to be aborted to save the mother’s life. If toward the end of the pregnancy complications arise that threaten the mother’s health, the doctor will either induce labor or perform a Caesarian section. His intention is to save the life of both the mother and the baby. The baby’s life is never willfully destroyed because the mother’s life is in danger.”
C. Everett Koop, M.D.
Former U.S. Surgeon-General

For important additional supporting facts and explanations, see these links:

In addition, the modern concept that the use of birth control is sometimes necessary to preserve the life of the mother flows directly from this false argument used to justify abortion. There may be rare legitimate conditions for the avoidance of pregnancy in which the life of the mother is in danger, but I now believe total abstinence (and perhaps NFP, though I'm still uncomfortable with this for all the reasons I have argued on this blog before) is the only moral option to consider, as other methods are intrinsically sinful. We may not do evil that good may come.


Sir Cuthbert said...

Dr. Heidenreich,

I agree with everything you said in this post, with one reservation. You said, "It is never, I repeat NEVER, justified for us to take it upon ourselves to end one life so that another may live." This unqualified statement seems to mean that killing in defense of self or others is unjustified as well. Did you mean it to be that broad and all-inclusive?


Nathan K.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...


Thanks for the agreement, and for the question.

Yes, I mean it to be that broad and all-inclusive. Notice that I said it is never justified for us to "take it upon ourselves" to end one life so that another may live. God did grant the sword to rightful authorities.

In the case of a citizen's self-defense or his defense of others, I would assume that the desire would be to take only whatever action is necessary to stop the assault, not intending to kill the assailant -- although this might be a tragic unintended secondary effect, depending upon the circumstances.

Christopher Gillespie said...

Nathan has in mind the "just war theory." I have not been comfortable with the language of this theory for the reasons stated above. War is not just or justifiable but often necessary.

Sir Cuthbert said...

Dr. Heidenreich,

Thanks, that clears up the reservation.

Mr. Gillespie,

I don't understand just war theory enough to appeal to it. Just off the top of my head, I think war may be just, if waged by legitimate civil authorities for sufficient cause. I'm not sure I could even define "legitimate civil authorities" and "sufficient cause" adequately.

N. K.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Leading medical experts speaking at a major International Symposium on Excellence in Maternal Healthcare held in Dublin have concluded that “direct abortion is not medically necessary to save the life of a mother.”

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Dr. Ryan MacPherson reminded me that "the Doe case (simultaneously decided with Roe) supported the 'life of the mother' exception to prohibitions of abortion and that either that case or else a subsequent case defined 'life' so loosely as to include also mental health. Not to discount the severity of various mental health issues, but the point is the law defined it so loosely as to basically reduce to personal whim."

Indeed, in the case of Doe v. Bolton in 1973, the Court stated that a woman may obtain an abortion after viability, if necessary to protect her "health." The Court defined "health" as:

"Whether, in the words of the Georgia statute, 'an abortion is necessary' is a professional judgment that the Georgia physician will be called upon to make routinely. We agree with the District Court, 319 F. Supp., at 1058, that the medical judgment may be exercised in the light of all factors - physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age - relevant to the well-being of the patient. All these factors may relate to health."