Abortion & Excommunication

Author: Colin B. Donovan, STL

Excommunication for Abortion. Canon 1398 provides that, "a person who procures a successful abortion incurs an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication." This means that at the very moment that the abortion is successfully accomplished, the woman and all formal conspirators are excommunicated.

An abortion is defined as "the killing of the foetus, in whatever way or at whatever time from the moment of conception" (Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, published in the "Acts of the Apostolic See" vol. 80 (1988), 1818). This definition applies to any means, including drugs, by which a human being present in the woman is killed. Thus, once a woman knows she is pregnant the intentional killing of the new life within her is not only murder but an excommunicable offense. A woman who only thinks she might be pregnant has a grave responsibility to find out and to protect the possible life within. Any action to end a "possible" pregnancy while probably not an excommunicable offense would be callous disregard for life and gravely sinful.

Conspirators who incur the excommunication can be defined as those who make access to the abortion possible. This certainly includes doctors and nurses who actually do it, husbands, family and others whose counsel and encouragement made it morally possible for the woman, and those whose direct practical support made it possible (financially, driving to the clinic etc.).

Clearly those who think the availability of chemical abortions will settle the abortion issue are deluded. It will only widen to drug manufacturers, pharmacists and family physicians those guilty of grave sin and subject to excommunication. [It should also be noted that many contraceptive pills are already abortifacient in operation. Theoretically, the knowing use of such a pill for its abortafacient purpose could also subject one to excommunication.]

Incurring Excommunication. To actually incur the excommunication one must know that it is an excommunicable offense at the time of the abortion. Canon 1323 provides that the following do not incur a sanction, those who are not yet 16, are unaware of a law, do not advert to it or are in error about its scope, were forced or had an unforeseeable accident, acted out of grave fear, or who lacked the use of reason (except culpably, as by drunkenness). Thus a woman forced by an abusive husband to have an abortion would not incur an excommunication, for instance, whereas someone culpably under the influence of drugs or alcohol would (canon 1325).

In any case, whether one has been excommunicated or not, the sin of abortion must be confessed as the taking of innocent human life (5th Commandment). If the penitent did not know about this law at the time of the abortion then he or she was NOT excommunicated. If the person knew about the law but there were extenuating circumstances (such as mentioned above concerning c. 1323) then these factors should be mentioned to the confessor. A person who believes they have been excommunicated must refrain from Holy Communion until both absolution for the sin and absolution for the excommunication has been given.

One complicating factor for anyone in this situation is that intentionally withholding mortal sin (abortion) or knowledge of one's excommunication invalidates ALL the absolutions for other sins given since the time of the intentionally overlooked sin. Culpably withholding mortal sin or an excommunication means that even after the priest says the words of absolution because of dishonesty on the penitent's part, the sin has not been absolved. Absolution is not magic, it depends upon sincere repentance from all known mortal sins and a firm purpose of amendment. Such sins would need to be confessed again, as part of an integral (complete and honest) confession. This is not the case if the person did not know that what they did was sinful in the eyes of God and the Church, but only found out this out latter. Since they did not withhold from confession what they knew to be sinful their prior confessions are valid.

Obtaining Absolution. The Church makes every effort to make Penance available and obliges priests to make anonymity possible as well (c. 964). There is really no valid excuse for delaying one's full return to the sacraments. All those who have had abortions should come home to Christ and the Church. Prior to the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy (2016), it was often necessary for the confessor to privately and secretly obtain absolution from the bishop on behalf of the person, or send the person to a confessor who has that power. Since the Jubilee of Mercy, however, Pope Francis has extended the faculty of absolving from excommunication for abortion to every Catholic priest. Thus, to be absolved from both the sin of abortion and the excommunication for abortion it is only required to make a good confession.