“Ask a Priest: Was I Gravely Negligent?”

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Q: I wanted your take on a couple of events that happened recently. 1) I was traveling in a U-Haul truck with a trailer behind it (I just moved), and toward the end of the trip I noticed that at every stop you are supposed to check tire pressure and the lights for the trailer. I didn’t really do this, since I was traveling with my dad and I didn’t think he would want to do so due to its tedious nature (and he was not feeling well). I checked the tires when we arrived at my new town, and they seemed to be at least 15 to 20 psi lower than they are supposed to be. I felt morally concerned because we didn’t really follow the directions — underinflated tires can cause accidents. Would I be guilty of (mortal) sin because of carelessness and risk of injuring myself and others? 2) I was speaking with a relative of mine and they mentioned they are pregnant, but that the pregnancy could be ectopic. They mentioned that if it is, they would have to use medicine to get rid of the fetus. During the phone call I didn’t really say anything against this and felt as though I may have made them feel like I saw no problem with this. I don’t think they were thinking of it in a malicious way (they are not Catholic). After the call I did send them a Catholic article about the acceptable means of dealing with an ectopic pregnancy. Did I sin by not saying something during the call, even though I sent them an article later? – N.H.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It seems that in both cases you were inspired to do something that you perceived to be good but didn’t do it (at least not in the moment).

In the first case, it’s hard to say whether it was a mortal sin, since there didn’t seem to be any malice on your part. (I’ll assume here that you were otherwise driving safely.) Nevertheless, the negligence did increase risk of an accident. The simplest thing might be to just mention it in confession. And resolve to follow safety rules in the future.

The second case is more complex. Perhaps your silence in the moment wasn’t laudable, though the objective situation is a bit complicated.

An ectopic pregnancy, according to a National Catholic Bioethics Center posting, “occurs when an embryo implants outside the uterus, usually in the fallopian tube. Once implanted, the embryo’s growth is likely to rupture the fallopian tube, causing the death of both mother and child. The condition may occasionally resolve itself with the spontaneous death of the embryo before the rupture.”

A woman with an ectopic pregnancy can morally undergo certain treatments to save her life even if this causes the death of the child. This is allowed under the principle of double effect. The important thing is that her intention is not to kill the child.

From what you describe, though, the intention is to “use medicine to get rid of the fetus.” That intention – “to get rid of the fetus” — isn’t morally licit since it amounts to an intention to abort the baby. There is also debate over the use of the drug methotrexate in some ectopic pregnancies, but the Church hasn’t made a ruling.

It should be explained to the couple that their intention can’t be to harm the child. The wife can, however, seek treatment even if an undesired consequence is the loss of the child. The loss of the child can be tolerated in this case because of the medical condition endangers the life of the mother.

It was good that you sent the couple an article afterward about Church teaching in the case of ectopic pregnancies. It’s understandable that you didn’t feel qualified in the middle of the phone call to address the topic; it is, after all, complicated. If you still feel as though you were negligent in the moment, you might mention it in confession.

Above all, try to draw lessons from these experiences. This will help you confront similar situations in the future. This is how we move ahead in our spiritual life and our Christian witness.

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  1. Just want to say I am a product of an ectopic pregnancy!!!
    My mom carried me for the full 9 months and on the day I was to be born they realized she had carried me the whole time in her Fallopian tube!!! She was advised to terminate the pregnancy so that she would live, and was told that if she decided to give birth to me that she would face certain death. More than 50 years later we are BOTH still around! My mom had four more children after me for a total of eight children!

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