Pope Francis Says Abortion, Even of a Sick Fetus, Is Like Hiring a ‘Hitman’

ROME — Pope Francis said Saturday that abortion was always unacceptable, regardless of whether a fetus is fatally ill or has pathological disorders. He also urged doctors to help women bring to term even pregnancies likely to end in the death of a child at birth or soon after.

“Is it legitimate to take out a human life to solve a problem?” Francis asked attendees at a Vatican conference on the issue, repeating one of his most contentious remarks on the issue. “Is it permissible to contract a hitman to solve a problem?”

A decision to abort based on medical information about an ill fetus amounted to “inhuman eugenics,” he said, and denied families the chance to welcome the weakest of children. He argued that using abortion as a mode of “prevention” could never be condoned, and that such a position had “nothing to do” with faith.

“Human life is sacred and inviolable and the use of prenatal diagnosis for selective purposes should be discouraged with strength,” Francis said.

The pope’s remarks come as the deeply divisive issue of abortion is once again gripping the United States. Conservatives in states like Alabama, Georgia and Missouri are passing some of the strictest limits on abortions in decades, while anti-abortion activists are hoping the Supreme Court will reconsider its legalization. Liberal activists in Democratic states are trying to shore up abortion protections or repeal restrictions.

In the pope’s backyard, Italy, where abortion was illegal until 1978, conservatives in the government have blamed the country’s dangerously low birthrate on abortion and some cities under conservative leadership have symbolically declared themselves “pro-life.”

That Francis, who has expressed sympathy with women who have had abortions and made it easier for their sins to be absolved, has an absolutist view against abortion is less than surprising. He is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, which considers abortion a grave sin.

But since he was elected in 2013, the pope has sought to de-emphasize culture war issues like abortion in order to promote his pastoral, inclusive vision of the church. That approach has drawn the criticism of conservatives, who have argued that he is unacceptably weak in his opposition to abortion.

An anti-abortion rally in Rome last weekend attracted the church’s conservative leaders, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American Vatican official who many consider to be the leader of the anti-Francis faction in the church. Attendees at the rally held up signs of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the pope’s more conservative predecessors.

One sign quoted Francis’s "hitman” comment, but showed a picture of Benedict.

On Saturday, Francis was explicit on the issue.

He argued that children who were not expected to live long after birth deserved to be treated in the womb “with extraordinary pharmacological, surgical and other interventions.” Such care “helps parents to grieve and not only think of it as a loss, but as a step on a path taken together,” he said.

“Every child” in the womb is a gift that “changes the history of a family,” he said.

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