by Cardinal John O'Connor

Some evils are what we call intrinsic evils, that is, evil in themselves, so that no circumstances can justify them. Direct abortion is such an evil. For example, a mother of a pregnant teenager does not want her daughter to have an abortion because of the emotional and spiritual damage it will cause her daughter. At the same time the mother does not want her daughter to have a baby and perhaps have to give up her future dreams. Is there a legitimate choice here? Can abortion be considered a "lesser evil?" No, because it is an intrinsic evil. It simply cannot be justified.

This principle holds even in regard to rape or incest. An unborn baby is an innocent human being who has committed no crime, regardless of how conception came about. It is never morally right to destroy an innocent human being.

Lesser of Evils

It is true that many in the pro-life movement temporarily settle for "imperfect" law, that is, law which permits abortion under severely limited circumstances, such as in cases of rape or incest. Such legislation is "supported" only as the lesser of evils and those who support it will continue to work toward legislation which prohibits the killing of any unborn, for any reason.

This does not imply that abortion in cases of rape or incest is less of an "intrinsic" evil than in other cases, or that pro-life people accept it as a morally lesser evil. One might call it a legally lesser evil. It implies that at a particular point the political reality may be that it is impossible to bring about legislation that prohibits all abortion. In such circumstances, moral theologians point out that it is better to achieve "imperfect" legislation that may save the lives of a great many unborn babies now, while continuing to work strenuously for "perfect" legislation that may save the life of every unborn baby at some future date.

Unfair to Accuse

In my judgment, it is unfair to accuse those who fight for imperfect legislation, as the best they can get at a given time, of "sacrificing the lives" of those unborn they know they cannot protect at the same time. I personally know public officials who have spent their entire political lives fighting to protect all unborn children. To date they have not been successful, but I thank God that they have succeeded in protecting huge numbers. Moreover, they have helped keep alive in our country the belief that all abortion is evil. They have helped keep the entire pro-life movement alive. Many of them have consistently risked their political futures to do this, and have taken bitter abuse from the pro-abortion movement. For anyone in the pro-life movement to accuse them of "trading off" babies conceived by rape or incest, as though they were callous to the sacredness of human life, or simply trying to protect themselves politically, would be unjust, uncharitable and terribly counterproductive to the cause of life.

Conditions Must be Present

The conflict over imperfect law has definitely been divisive to the pro-life movement. It seems to me that our goal must always be to advance protection for the unborn child to the maximum degree possible. It certainly seems to me, however, that in cases in which perfect legislation is clearly impossible, it is morally acceptable to support a pro-life bill, however reluctantly, that contains exceptions if the following conditions prevail:

  • there is no other feasible bill restricting existing permissive abortion laws to a greater degree than the proposed bill;
  • the proposed bill is more restrictive than existing law, that is, the bill does not weaken the current law's restraints on abortion; and
  • the proposed bill does not negate the responsibility of future, more restrictive laws.

In addition, it would have to be made clear that we do not believe that a bill which contains exceptions is ideal and that we would continue to urge future legislation which would more fully protect human life.

Prudential Judgment

I recognize that some in the pro-life movement may consider it politically or strategically unwise to take the course outlined above, but that is a matter of prudential judgment. It is not a matter of supporting intrinsic evil as such.

I agree with and strongly encourage the following from the Joint Committee on Bio-Ethical Issues of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Great Britain.

"In a society which widely permits and procures abortion (e.g. by publicly funding it), some may judge that justice and the common good are most fittingly served by campaigning uncompromisingly for the 'politically impossible': full equal legal protection for the unborn. Others may judge it right to concentrate on pressing for a measure of protection which is less than complete but which is greater than the accorded by today's unjust law and has, they consider, a better prospect of being soon enacted and brought into force.

Those who choose the stricter course should not adversely judge those who promote imperfect legislation, provided that the actions and attitudes of the latter are consistent with all other guidelines... Nor should those who promote imperfect legislation make adverse judgments on those whose preference for the stricter course seems to hinder the pursuit of the politically possible. Either group's adverse criticism of the other may undermine the common effort — to extend the equal protection of the law to all." (Briefing 89, Vol. 19, No. 14, July 7, 1989.)

Cardinal O'Connor was Archbishop of New York and chairman of the Committee for Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. This essay is from a special edition of 'From My Viewpoint' which appeared first in Catholic New York, Abortion: Questions and Answers, June 14, 1990. It is reprinted with permission.

Special Note [from Cardinal O'Connor]: The following edition of "From My Viewpoint" is provided for Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York. Other readers, in New York and elsewhere, may find it of some interest, but I wish to make clear that I offer it as Archbishop of New York to try to meet the needs within my own archdiocese. I do not offer it in my capacity as Chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is not intended to represent that committee, and does not pretend to speak for the Bishops of the United States.