Purity of Heart: The Moral Life - Current Issues: Abortion
History of Church Teaching
US Bishops Issue Fact Sheet
The following is a fact
sheet issued by the U.S. Episcopal conference's Committee on
Pro-Life Activities, which clarifies the Church's constant teaching
Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Since the first century
the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion.
This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct
abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a
means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (No. 2271).
In response to those who say this teaching has changed or is of
recent origin, here are the facts:
From earliest times, Christians sharply distinguished themselves
from surrounding pagan cultures by rejecting abortion and
infanticide. The earliest widely used documents of Christian
teaching and practice after the New Testament in the 1st and 2nd
centuries, the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) and
Letter of Barnabas, condemned both practices, as did early
regional and particular Church councils.
-- To be sure, knowledge of human embryology was very limited
until recent times. Many Christian thinkers accepted the
biological theories of their time, based on the writings of
Aristotle (4th century BC) and other philosophers. Aristotle
assumed a process was needed over time to turn the matter from a
woman’s womb into a being that could receive a specifically
human form or soul. The active formative power for this process
was thought to come entirely from the man -- the existence of
the human ovum (egg), like so much of basic biology, was
-- However, such mistaken biological theories never changed the
Church’s common conviction that abortion is gravely wrong at
every stage. At the very least, early abortion was seen as
attacking a being with a human destiny, being prepared by God to
receive an immortal soul (cf. Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you
in the womb, I knew you”).
-- In the 5th century AD this rejection of abortion at every
stage was affirmed by the great bishop-theologian St. Augustine.
He knew of theories about the human soul not being present until
some weeks into pregnancy. Because he used the Greek Septuagint
translation of the Old Testament, he also thought the ancient
Israelites had imposed a more severe penalty for accidentally
causing a miscarriage if the fetus was “fully formed” (Exodus
21: 22-23), language not found in any known Hebrew version of
this passage. But he also held that human knowledge of biology
was very limited, and he wisely warned against misusing such
theories to risk committing homicide. He added that God has the
power to make up all human deficiencies or lack of development
in the Resurrection, so we cannot assume that the earliest
aborted children will be excluded from enjoying eternal life
-- In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas made extensive use of
Aristotle’s thought, including his theory that the rational
human soul is not present in the first few weeks of pregnancy.
But he also rejected abortion as gravely wrong at every stage,
observing that it is a sin “against nature” to reject God’s gift
of a new life.
-- During these centuries, theories derived from Aristotle and
others influenced the grading of penalties for abortion in
Church law. Some canonical penalties were more severe for a
direct abortion after the stage when the human soul was thought
to be present. However, abortion at all stages continued to be
seen as a grave moral evil.
-- From the 13th to 19th centuries, some theologians speculated
about rare and difficult cases where they thought an abortion
before “formation” or “ensoulment” might be morally justified.
But these theories were discussed and then always rejected, as
the Church refined and reaffirmed its understanding of abortion
as an intrinsically evil act that can never be morally right.
-- In 1827, with the discovery of the human ovum, the mistaken
biology of Aristotle was discredited. Scientists increasingly
understood that the union of sperm and egg at conception
produces a new living being that is distinct from both mother
and father. Modern genetics demonstrated that this individual
is, at the outset, distinctively human, with the inherent and
active potential to mature into a human fetus, infant, child and
adult. From 1869 onward the obsolete distinction between the
“ensouled” and “unensouled” fetus was permanently removed from
canon law on abortion.
-- Secular laws against abortion were being reformed at the same
time and in the same way, based on secular medical experts’
realization that “no other doctrine appears to be consonant with
reason or physiology but that which admits the embryo to possess
vitality from the very moment of conception” (American Medical
Association, Report on Criminal Abortion, 1871).
-- Thus modern science has not changed the Church’s constant
teaching against abortion, but has underscored how important and
reasonable it is, by confirming that the life of each individual
of the human species begins with the earliest embryo.
-- Given the scientific fact that a human life begins at
conception, the only moral norm needed to understand the
Church’s opposition to abortion is the principle that each and
every human life has inherent dignity, and thus must be treated
with the respect due to a human person. This is the foundation
for the Church’s social doctrine, including its teachings on
war, the use of capital punishment, euthanasia, health care,
poverty and immigration. Conversely, to claim that some live
human beings do not deserve respect or should not be treated as
“persons” (based on changeable factors such as age, condition,
location, or lack of mental or physical abilities) is to deny
the very idea of inherent human rights. Such a claim undermines
respect for the lives of many vulnerable people before and after
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