Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Legatus Magazine. © Legatus. Reprinted with permission.

Continuing our selection from the forthcoming “Catechism for Business,” we focus here on the issue of life.  We cover four relevant questions, about selling to organizations whose purpose is hostile to innocent life, providing health-care benefits that cover birth control and abortion, the responsibilities of health-care workers, and safety in the workplace. 

May we sell any product or service to an organization whose purpose is hostile to innocent life, e.g. sell cleaning services to an abortion clinic?
The Church draws a distinction between formal and material cooperation with evil. Formal cooperation is where your intention, or your own action, is evil.  Material cooperation with evil is where you do not share the evil intention of those you are cooperating with, and where your own action is not evil, but somehow contributes to the evil action of another. In this example, offering cleaning services to an abortion clinic because you support what they are doing is formal cooperation. Offering cleaning services to an abortion clinic because you need to keep your workers employed in a recession, while you despise what is going on in the clinic, is material cooperation.

Formal cooperation is always forbidden. Material cooperation should also be avoided, except where avoiding it would cause a greater evil. In cases of attacks on innocent life, though — which our question addresses — even material cooperation is forbidden, because there can be no greater evil than the taking of an innocent life. Therefore, it is not permissible to sell cleaning services to an abortion clinic, even in order to save the jobs of your employees. 

“The first fundamental distinction to be made is that between formal and material cooperation. Formal cooperation is carried out when the moral agent cooperates with the immoral action of another person, sharing in the latter’s evil intention. On the other hand, when a moral agent cooperates with the immoral action of another person, without sharing his/her evil intention, it is a case of material cooperation.
“Formal cooperation is always morally illicit because it represents a form of direct and intentional participation in the sinful action of another person. Material cooperation can sometimes be illicit … but when immediate material cooperation concerns grave attacks on human life, it is always to be considered illicit, given the precious nature of the value in question.” — Pontifical Academy for Life, “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared From Cells Derived From Aborted Human Fetuses,” June 5, 2005

Is it morally acceptable to offer health-care benefits that cover abortion or birth control to employees?
The answer to this question is similar to the preceding one: Offering health-care benefits that cover abortion or birth control to employees is at best material cooperation in evil, and since in the case of abortion and (often) birth control this involves an offense against life, then it is not permissible. 

Should health-care workers refuse to participate in actions that are harmful to innocent life?
Health-care workers should exercise their right to conscientious objection when asked to participate in any attack on innocent human life, e.g. abortion or euthanasia. Where this right is not recognized, health-care workers must still refuse to participate in such attacks, even at the cost of their own career because — as noted above — even material cooperation in attacks on innocent life is forbidden. 

“In the moral domain, [the International Congress of Catholic Pharmacists] is invited to address the issue of conscientious objection, which is a right your profession must recognize, permitting you not to collaborate either directly or indirectly by supplying products for the purpose of decisions that are clearly immoral such as, for example, abortion or euthanasia.” — Benedict XVI, Address to Members of the International Congress of Catholic Pharmacists, Oct. 29, 2007

“The passing of unjust laws often raises difficult problems of conscience for morally upright people with regard to the issue of cooperation, since they have a right to demand not to be forced to take part in morally evil actions. Sometimes the choices which have to be made are difficult; they may require the sacrifice of prestigious professional positions or the relinquishing of reasonable hopes of career advancement.” — John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 74

What obligations do we have to ensure the health and safety of our employees, beyond the legal requirements (e.g. U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Act), especially in countries with less stringent health and safety legislation?
Respect for human life requires employers to take every precaution to protect the lives and health of their employees. The Church notes the importance of protecting workers’ moral as well as physical health. Employers also have a responsibility for the safety of the employees of their outsource partners, whom the Church considers their indirect employees. 

“Among these rights [of employees] there should never be overlooked the right to a working environment and to manufacturing processes which are not harmful to the workers’ physical health or to their moral integrity.” — John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, 19

“The conditions in which a man works … must not be such as to weaken his physical or moral fiber or militate against the proper development of adolescents to manhood.” — John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 19

“The responsibility of the indirect employer differs from that of the direct employer … but it remains a true responsibility: The indirect employer substantially determines one or other facet of the labor relationship, thus conditioning the conduct of the direct employer when the latter determines in concrete terms the actual work contract and labor relations.” — John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, 17

Andrew Abela is the chairman of the Department of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America and an associate professor of marketing. Abela is the recipient of the Acton Institute’s 2009 Novak Award for research into the relationship between religion and economic liberty and a charter member of the Arlington, Virginia, chapter of Legatus. He can be reached at abela@cua.edu.