Allowing Exceptions in Abortion Laws

Anthony Zimmerman
Letter to American Life League
December 21, 1990
not published
Reproduced with Permission

While resting in bed today with a cold, I listened once more to a recording of an address given at Miami this year, opposing exceptions in proposed amendments of abortion laws. May I comment.

I taught Moral Theology at major seminaries for over 30 years, and so I have confidence that I am fairly well acquainted with what the approved authors say. I refer to the problem of legally allowing some abortion to save more lives of children, and to get the present all- permissive laws off the books.

The Divine Law "Thou shalt not kill" applies without change, forbidding direct abortion at all times and under all circumstances. Legal loopholes notwithstanding, the Divine Law always forbids the direct killing of children conceived by rape, by incest, or with the purpose-of saving the life of the mother.

Human law need not necessarily forbid everything that Divine Law forbids. I quote from St. Thomas, who invokes St. Augustine, two giants in the area of Theology who shaped our thinking over the centuries with the blessing of the Church. St. Thomas here explains why, and under what circumstances, human government may tolerate certain evils to exist:

I answer that human government is derived from the Divine government, and should imitate it. Now although God is all- powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He allows certain evils to take place in the universe which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue. Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred: thus Augustine says (De Ordine 11,4): "If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust." (Summa Theologica, ii,II,10,11.)

I remember how I wrestled with that while in the seminary: the great authorities in Moral Theology of those orthodox days, admitted in principle that a government would be allowed, under due circumstances, to legalized houses or areas for prostitution. I accepted it then - after much thought - and accept it now.

I also accept that, in principle, "those who are in authority rightly tolerate certain evils" [of abortion), "lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils ensue." We can accept that principle, without in any way compromising the Laws of God. It is an accepted moral principle, as Thomas teaches, that: Human government should imitate Divine government by legally tolerating some evils, [some evil abortion] if that is necessary to prevent the loss of greater goods, or to prevent greater evils (see Thomas above).

God, then, approves that governments legally permit some evil [abortion] when the common welfare is better served by such action. It would be wrong, then, to appeal to divine law to exclude all LEGAL abortion, which nevertheless is, and remains evil, even if legally permitted.

We sail together on this ship earth, where original sin was once committed. It is not ours to move back into a world without sin. If we cannot stop all legal abortion at once, let us nibble it down in the meantime as best we can. To allow some legal abortion, then, under present conditions in the USA, is far from being a "compromise" of principles. Though legal measures seem to deny personhood to children conceived after rape, etc., these legal measures in no manner remove their personhood. To abort them is murder, permitted legally only because of the imperfect condition of the world in which we live; the world in which God has kindly asked us to live and to love. Legalizing some abortion does not make this evil into a good; legality does not change morality. But laws which allow some evil are not always a compromise against Divine law. Rather, as St. Thomas points out, we ought to IMITATE the manner in which Divine government tolerates some evil lest greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue.

The above does not claim that proposing laws, which would legalize some abortion, are always POLITICALLY wise. Political judgments differ among good people. If we can obtain a complete ban on abortion, we must do so. In that case it would be politically - and morally - wrong to propose SOME legal abortion.

However, if it is POLITICALLY IMPOSSIBLE to legislate against ALL abortion, then imitation of Divine government directs us to ALLOW SOME LIMITED LEGAL ABORTION, lest more children lose their lives, and UNLIMITED abortion remain legal. Such political action is not only permitted, it is also wise, virtuous, praiseworthy, an imitation of God's wisdom, a service to God and to humanity. Augustine and Thomas approve this in principle. It is in line with God's ways. We cannot improve on God's ways.