I argued here last week that, as morally objectionable as Plan B (the "morning after" drug that prevents conception or acts as an abortifacient) may be, the Bush administration had little choice under the law but to approve it for sale. Much as I expected, some of my pro-life friends responded angrily, some lecturing me on the natural law and some accusing me of being a son of perdition.
Contemplating the emotion underlying this response, I suspect that some in the pro-life camp may be confusing two quite different moral norms related to the taking of human life. On the one hand, there is the norm against intentionally killing an innocent human being. This norm is absolute in the sense that it applies always and everywhere, there being no circumstances whatsoever in which we may intentionally kill the innocent. That being so, we ought rather die as martyrs than engage in such killing. On the other hand, there is a norm requiring us to act to save the innocent from being killed by others. This norm is not absolute because our obligation so to act depends on the totality of the circumstances¯on such things as the means available to us, our relation to the one in danger, our other moral commitments, the prospects for successful action, and so on.
When we see on television the victims of genocide in Darfur, for example, although we know that they are doomed to a violent death, we do no wrong if we conclude, reasonably and in good faith, that helping them is not reasonably possible because we lack the means to do so, because the attempt would do more harm than good, or because there are other persons, closer to home, to whom we owe a superior duty. As St. Thomas says, we ought to will the good of all, but our obligation to act for the good of any depends on the circumstances.
Some modern philosophers, especially consequentialists, are confused by this, thinking that someone who fails to rescue another from death acts as wrongly as does someone who intentionally kills another. There are exceptional cases where that may be true, as when an adult stands passively by and watches a small child drown in a bathtub, but, generally speaking, failing to rescue the innocent from death may or may not be wrong, and when it is wrong, it may be more or less wrong¯all depending on the circumstances of the case.
In any event, even when the moral guilt of the intentional murderer and the man who fails to save an innocent are equal, the kind of moral wrongdoing differs. One man chooses an action that is incapable of being ordered to the final end of human nature; the other fails to choose an action that, in the circumstances, is uniquely well ordered to that end. Because judgments about whether particular actions are well ordered to the final end are often difficult and uncertain, we should judge others especially leniently in evaluating their conduct in such cases.
My pro-life friends who think that people ought go to any lengths whatsoever to prevent abortions are, I think, confusing the two kinds of moral norms in play. They are acting as if the obligation to save the innocent were as absolute as the obligation not to kill the innocent, and it simply is not. There are, tragically, many circumstances in which we are unable to save innocents from a violent death, and in those cases we have no moral obligation to act. Those are cases about which we pray, trusting in a God who judges justly.