There is, then, a strong case for thinking that abortions always bring about some bad results — at a minimum the loss of potential human life — and that for most pregnancies abortion would be morally wrong. But this conclusion is limited in two ways: A woman’s right to control her reproductive life can, as in the case of rape, offset even a person’s right to life; and at least at the earlier stages of pregnancy, the embryo has only the moral standing of potential, not actual, human life, which may be overridden by harm to humans with full moral standing.

These limitations, I suggest, correspond to the “very difficult situations” (such as “rape” and “extreme poverty”) in which the pope, in “Evangelii Gaudium,” admitted the church has “done little to adequately accompany women.” Allowing for exceptions to the moral condemnation of abortion in some of these painful situations would not contradict the pope’s overall commitment to the “value of the human person.” Rather, it would admit what reason shows: There are morally difficult issues about abortion that should be decided by conscience, not legislation. The result would be a church acting according to the pope’s own stated standard: preaching not “certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options” but rather the gospel of love.