Catholic Church's Teaching on Abortion

Author: Greg Smith



The Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill forms the basis of church teaching and civil law prohibiting murder, suicide and abortion. This teaching was reinforced by Christ's teaching "Love your neighbour as yourself." The Psalms emphasized that man is made in God's image and likeness. We come from God. We go to God. We belong to God. Psalm 138: 13-14 states: "For it was you who created my being, knit me together in my mother's womb. I thank you for the wonder of my being."


There is no specific mention of abortion in the New Testament. However, at the Visitation the unborn John the Baptist leapt in the womb in the presence of the unborn Jesus. They were spiritually and physically conscious of each other on the occasion which was the baptism of John the Baptist, cleansing him from original sin before birth.

The earliest specific references to abortion are those in the "Didache" and the "Epistle of Barnabas", both written in the early Second Century. The "Didache" committed a code of Christian morality with a manual of Church life and order. It declares "Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion/destruction."

The Epistle of Barnabas which is a more theological tract on Christian life and thought contains the injunction "Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion" immediately after the statement "Thou shalt love thy neighbour more than thy own life". The unborn child is seen not as a part of his/her mother, but as a neighbour. Abortion is rejected as contrary to other centered neighbour love. (Michael J Gorman, "Abortion & The Early Church")


The Second Vatican Council on its Pastoral Constitution "Gaudium et Spes" (The Church in the Modern World) stated when discussing married love and respect for human life:

"The Church wishes to emphasize that there can be no conflict between the divine laws governing the transmission of life and the fastening of authentic married love.

"God, the Lord of Life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes. Man's sexuality and the facility of reproduction wondrously surpass the endowments of lower forms of life. Therefore the acts proper to married life are to be ordered according to authentic human dignity and must be honoured with the greatest reverence." (Ch 51 (A Flannery "Vatican II" 1981 Ed p. 955).


Pope Pius XII taught: "No man, no human authority, no science, no medical, eugenic, social, economic or oral indication can offer or produce a valid juridicial title (Justification) for disposing directly of innocent human life." (Address to Midwives, 1951)

Pope John XXIII in his Evangelical "Mater et Magistra" taught: "Human life is sacred: from its very inception to reveals the creating hand of God."

In 1974 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the ratification of Pope Paul VI issued the "Declaration on Procured Abortion." It summarized the ongoing teaching of the church in total opposition to abortion and emphasized that Pope Paul VI speaking on this subject on many occasions, has not been afraid to declare that this teaching of the Church "has not changed and is unchangeable".

The Declaration emphasized that "the first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental the condition of all the others. Hence it must be protected above all others. It does not belong to society, nor does it belong to public authority on any form to recognize this right for some and not for others: all discrimination is evil, whether it be founded on race, sex, color or religion. It is not recognition by another that constitutes this right. This right is antecedent to its recognition; it demands recognition and it is strictly unjust to refuse it ...

The right to life remains complete in an old person, even one greatly weakened; it is not lost by one who is incurably sick. The right to life is no less to be respected in the small infant just born than in the mature person. In reality, respect for human life is called for from the time that the process of generation begins. From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. (extracts from paras 11 & 12)

What we wish to say again with emphasis ... is that never, under any pretext, may abortion be resorted to, either by a family or by the political authority, as a legitimate means or regulating births. The damage to moral values is always a greater evil for the common good than any disadvantage in economical or demographic order. (extract from para 18)

The Church remains consistent in its teaching towards the unborn. In the new code of common law issued in 1983 Canon 1398 continued proscribing abortion as an act which attracts automatic excommunication. Also in 1983, the Holy See issued the "Charter of the Rights of the Family" which confirmed that "Human life must be absolutely respected and protected from the moment of conception."

The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued in 1987 with the approval of Pope John Paul II, its instruction "Donum Vitae" on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation. This instruction dealt principally with methods of artificially conceiving children such as by In Vitro Fertilization. The Instruction considered the following quotation: "What respect is due to the human embryo, taking into account his nature and identity?" and answered, "The human being must be respected as a person from the very first instant of his existence."

The Instruction also addressed this question: "Is prenatal diagnosis morally licit?"

Which it answered: "If prenatal diagnosis respects the life and integrity of the embryo and the human foetus and is directed towards its safeguarding or healing as an individual, then the answer is affirmative."

Pope John Paul II has spoken with great regularity and conviction about the importance of respecting the life of the unborn. In his Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation "Christifideles Laici" on the vocation and the mission of the Lay faithful in the Church and in the world published at the end of 1988 His Holiness stated eloquently:

"The dignity of the person is the indestructible property of every human being. The force of this affirmation is based on the uniqueness and irrepeatibility of every person. From it flows that the individual can never be reduced by all that seeks to crush and to annihilate the person into the anonymity that comes from collectivity, institution structures and systems. As an individual, a person is not a number or simply a link in the chain nor even less, an impersonal element in some system. The most radical and elevating affirmation of the value of every human being was made by the Son of God in his becoming man in the womb of a woman, as we continue to be reminded each Christmas."

Like their colleagues throughout the world, the Australian Bishops have often repeated the Church's teachings. In 1980 in a document entitled "GREATEST HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUE OF THE 1980's" a chillingly statement: "Statistically, the most dangerous place for an Australian in 1980 is a mother's womb." Statistic show that in the 1990's the unborn are even in more danger.

Greg Smith New South Wales Right to Life (Australia)