“Can a pregnant woman infected with the Zika virus abort the fetus?”

Answer: The question can be answered from legal and ethical standpoints. To begin with the legal, in the United States, since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion at the federal level, each state has responded with its own legislation regulating abortion. In general, most current U.S. states allow abortion before the fetus gets 20 to 24 weeks old (around the end of the second trimester). Thus, the pregnant woman diagnosed with the Zika infection can get an abortion within the state’s jurisprudence. On the other hand, abortion is legally permitted in the period later than the legal period, typically when the mother is in a dire medical condition. Thus, it is unlikely that this legal exception applies to the pregnant woman with the Zika infection because it is not the woman’s health that is in peril. Some states allow the late-term abortion in the case of an extreme fetal deformity; it is up to the state’s decision whether or not the Zika-infected, microcephalic fetus belongs to that category though we do not believe it is the case.

To discuss the case from the ethical perspective, we need to frame the question within the reasoning of a particular ethical tradition. As our society is getting more religiously and culturally diversified, many different ethical traditions co-exist in the U.S. However, let us confine our response to the ethical framework of one particular tradition, which is the Roman Catholic tradition. The Church understands a “human person” to begin at conception and thus even a zygote is called a “mono-celled person” who holds the same dignity and sanctity as adult human beings. Accordingly, abortion in any embryonic or fetal developmental stage is morally prohibited. However, as in the case of law, this general moral principle is overridden when the mother’s life is in danger. The Church sees it as morally justifiable to save the mother with the death of the fetus/embryo as the unintended consequence. However, the Church nuances the verdict that, while a direct killing of the fetus is never permitted, the death of the fetus occurs in the way of saving the mother’s life as an act “not intended but merely foreseen.” Also, the Church emphasizes that the justifiable act of killing should be evidenced by a proper technical medical procedure that fits in with the category. However, one seeming controversy is that a further rule or principle is not shown why the justifiable act of killing is made in favor of saving the mother, not the fetus. It is neither that the fetus is less human person than the mother, nor that the fetus’s personhood is “potential” while the mother is “actual.” Both persons are actual human beings with the same degrees of dignity and sanctity. Then, why save the mother, not the fetus? The Church calls for “conscience” as the moral judge that determines in this type of case.

Critics argue that, since one’s conscience can voice a different opinion from that of another’s conscience, the Church has practically opened the possibility that two opposing moral solutions are possible for the same case. Thus, one can decide to save the mother or the fetus based on one’s own conscience. To say further, the Church condones the faithful to do whatever they want based on their arbitrary feelings. Then, in our case, the Zika-infected pregnant woman’s abortion in any stage is ethically permissible.

However, this is a misleading understanding of the nature of conscience. While it is admitted that a theological discussion on conscience must be furthered, the Church’s use of conscience is not to endorse or secretly allow the arbitrariness, but to explain the nature of its theological moral reasoning. In all ethical cases, relevant general moral principles should be upheld. However, there are moral dilemmas, that is, the cases where two or more moral principles or rules are in conflict. And in the cases of moral dilemmas, conscience decides which principle should be prioritized over the other. Since conscience is largely of human reason, it has a direction. Thus, it does not provide arbitrary verdicts. On the other hand, conscience as a pathway to God’s will implies the element of divinity, so it demands one’s obedience. In sum, conscience is “rational-divine moral intuition” bound to generate similar solutions for similar cases. For example, when the pregnant mother’s life is in danger, the moral intuition dictates that “Save the life of a dying adult person” should be balanced over against “Do not kill the life of an unborn person.” And all similar cases like this should be treated in this manner.

In the case of the pregnant woman with the Zika infection, at least three moral rules are relevant: “Do not kill the life of an unborn person,” “Do not put a financial burden on a society to care for mentally retarded babies,” and “Do not put a financial as well as emotional burden on an adult person to care for mentally retarded babies.” According to the Church, it seems unlikely that conscience, our moral intuition, decides in the way that the first rule trumps the other two in cases like this; nor is found a theological precedent that endorses moral prioritization in favor of the first rule against the two. Therefore, Pope Francis emphasizes that abortion is absolutely not permitted when fight the Zika virus.