CATHOLIC TEACHING ON ABORTION
Anthony Fisher O.P.
"The Allen Review", 7 (Trinity 1992), 12-17.
Catholic Teaching on Abortion
The recent controversy over the Irish abortion-after-rape case has left some
people confused about where the Catholic Church stands on the matter of
abortion. During the debate occasioned by that tragic situation (and the
ghoulish interest of the media) it was sometimes suggested, even at times by
Catholic politicians and scholars, that Catholic teaching on abortion is
unclear. Yet in its earliest teachings and down through the centuries to
modern times, the Church has consistently and unequivocally condemned abortion
as a grave moral and social wrong. The Church argues its position on clear
philosophical grounds, rather than any special revelation private to
From a high view of the human person - shared by people from many
philosophical, religious and humanistic traditions - comes the basic principle
that every human being must be respected as a person, and accorded rights and
dignity equal to all other persons. A long list of basic human rights has thus
been enunciated and codified in United Nations conventions and other places -
of which the most basic right, upon which the others depend, is the right to
life. The direct taking of innocent human life is therefore almost universally
deplored. Thus Catholics join others in resisting disrespect for and threats
to human life in many situations: violent crime, murder, child abuse, embryo
experimentation, abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, genocide, killing of non-
combatants in war, starvation etc..
Abortion is a case of direct killing of an innocent human being - a violation
of the rights of the youngest members of our society and the human family. It
is, thus not just a matter of personal choice, religious opinion or women's
rights, but a basic human rights and social justice issue. All human beings
are called to respect (and, if they are in a position to do so, protect and
nurture) human life at all stages, and to ensure a society where crimes of
violence are as far as possible prevented. Thus the Vatican (1983, #4) declares:
Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of
conception. Abortion is a direct violation of the fundamental right to
life of the human being.
In taking this position the Church is not proposing an eccentricity. Even
entirely secular government committees have soundly concluded:
The embryo is a genetically new human life organised as a distinct entity
oriented towards further development as a biologically individuated member
of the human species... It commands such a degree of respect as to prohibit
destructive non-therapeutic experimentation.
- Australian Senate Committee on Human Embryo Experimentation (1986)1
From a biological point of view, there is no argument as to when life
begins. Evidence was given to us by eminent scientists from all over the
world. None of them suggested that human life begins at any time other than
- New Zealand Royal Commission on Abortion etc. (1974)
What should be recognized, therefore, is that 'pro-lifers' including Catholics
are concerned about the abuse of the youngest members of the human family'.
They are not seeking to impose some personal religious opinion on the rest of
the population any more than those who oppose other forms of violence and
discrimination, such as rape, slavery, apartheid or the killing of Jews.
Some object that the Church has changed its position on abortion over the
centuries. It is true that there have long been disputes among philosophers
and theologians over the status of the early human being. Parallel traditions
developed, some arguing that the human being has a 'human soul' (rational and
immortal life-principle) and 'personhood' from conception, others arguing for
a later date ('delayed hominization'). Penalties attaching to abortion varied
from time to time and from place to place. But right from the beginning the
Church insisted that abortion was gravely wrong, whether or not it was actual
homicide (the direct killing of a human person), recklessly risking homicide
(directly killing what might well be a human person), or intentionally killing
an already human person-to-be.2 Even those who argued for delayed hominization
did not use the time of ensoulment as a moral dividing line between
permissible and immoral abortions.3
From the earliest centuries the Christian Church was noted for its opposition
to all abortion and most Christian theologians taught that abortion was homicide. For instance, the earliest Christian document outside the
Scriptures declares "You shall not slay the child by abortion or kill the
infant already born" (The , c. 80 AD). The influence of Aristotelian
biology led some theologians to argue that the human soul only entered the
'formed' or 'animated' foetus at 40 to 90 days after conception. Philosophical
and scientific developments gradually led the Church to abandon this
distinction.4 For the last century the popes, bishops, and an ecumenical
council have taught unequivocally that human life must be respected from the
first moment of conception, and that abortion at any stage is a grave evil.5
Thus the Second Vatican Council, aware of the debate over ensoulment, declared
All offences against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion,
euthanasia, and wilful suicide... are criminal. They poison civilization,
and they debase the perpetrators even more than the victims... Life must
be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion
and infanticide are abominable crimes. ((1965), ##27,51)6
Some academics still argue about when the embryo first has a human soul - and
the Church does not purport to referee that dispute.7 But precisely because of
this controversy the only prudent course is to treat the unborn as an actual
human person from conception. Just as a farmer seeing something moving in the
distance which might be a kangaroo or might be a child cannot responsibly take
the risk of shooting it until he knows for sure, so there is no stage of
development during which the unborn can be 'safely' destroyed without risking
killing a human person. The most recent Vatican statement on this matter
The fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence (i.e.
the moment the zygote has formed), demands the unconditional respect that
is morally due to human beings in their bodily and spiritual totality. The
human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of
conception; and therefore from that same moment her/his rights as a person
must be recognized, among which the first is the inviolable right of every
innocent human being to life. (CDF, . 1987)
Of course some people will still say that unborn human beings are not fully
human persons. It is difficult to see by what revelation or dogmatic authority
this position is asserted. The slaughter of Tasmanian aborigines was once
justified on the basis of their not being human too. What is the unborn before
it is morally human? Have we not improved on ancient biology and mediæval
philosophy which regarded them as 'metaphysically vegetable' with animal and
rational souls popping in somewhere between 40 days (for males) and 90 days
(for females) after conception?8 What kind of magic makes the unborn suddenly
Some have argued that a being must 'qualify' for the status of moral person by
developing capacities such as the ability to survive if separated from the
mother ('viability' - which is really a matter of how far medical technology
has progressed), rationality, motility, consciousness or social relationships.
But why are these the tests of moral worth and who chooses them? How are these
qualities to be measured and can they possibly yield a consistent answer as to
who is a person? After all, if we are to embrace this approach we must face
the fact that it excludes from respect and protection a much wider group than
just embryos: all unborn and newborn children, the handicapped, senile,
comatose, unconscious, drunk...
Sometimes it is argued that these decisions are private ones for the woman
concerned, that she should have control over her own body. But in its teaching
on abortion the Church is not contesting the woman's right to personal
autonomy (although even non-pregnant women do not have an absolute right to do
what they please with their bodies); rather, the Church is pointing to the
proper limit to any freedom, which is respect for that same freedom for others
(in this case, the child in the womb). Here we meet the rights and needs of
another human being, clearly distinct from the mother even if (like newborn
babies) very dependent upon her. As such the child has the same rights to life
and bodily integrity as the mother.
The focus on rights in this area - by both sides of the debate - is often
unhelpful because of the difficulty of resolving conflicts of rights and the
individualistic, property-minded underpinnings of much rights language. A more
wholistic approach to moral responsibility will also address responsibilities
to others and out stewardship over our own bodies and creation. Abortion has
been found to have ill-effects not only on the children (for whom it is
fatal), but for many of their mothers who are physically, psychologically and
spiritually wounded by the experience; to adversely effect existing family,
future children, health care workers, and would-be adopting parents; to
dangerously devalue the currency of human life and change both medical ethics
and social mores; to contribute to the rapid aging of British society, which
is among the highest per capita aborters in the world. Time precludes
exploring these effects - and many more - at greater length: suffice it here
to say that there are grave reasons to question the morality and prudence of
'the abortion solution' even if one does not regard the rights of the child as
a preeminent consideration.
Catholic faith only magnifies these concerns. Belief in a Creator God who is
the author of human life and who greatly dignifies9 it, deploring and
forbidding the killing of the innocent,10 adds to Christian concern for all
human beings. Belief in a Provident God who creates human beings with a
vocation and a destiny even in the womb,11 who treasures all children and
grants them as a blessing to their parents,12 and who cares about the deaths
even of the youngest,13 amplifies Christian regard for the youngest human
beings. Belief in an Incarnate God who himself 'took flesh' as a human embryo
in the womb of Mary, who was heralded while still an embryo by his foetal
cousin14 and developed from embryo to foetus, infant, child, adolescent and
adult, and in his mother as one free from sin 'from the first moment of her
conception', intensifies Christian love for the weakest of these his embryonic
brethren. Catholic faith does add another dimension to the purely
philosophical and social moral argument outlined above. But primarily it is
that concern for the fundamental dignity and inviolability of human life which
Catholics share with people of good will of all religions and none, and which
has been basic to the British legal system and international law, that
underlies the 'pro-life' cause.
Catholics do not pretend to judge the subjective guilt of women who have
abortions. They too are so often victims of a cop-out by men and an
exploitative industry, victims of an evasive, aborting society which provides
women with little real freedom and information on this issue, and offers
abortion as an 'easy way out' with no alternatives. Concern for human life and
for pregnant women has put Catholics at the forefront not only of lobbying for
the legal protection of human life, but of efforts to create a more just and
compassionate society in which couples and single women distressed by
pregnancy are supported in every way possible through their pregnancy and the
years of child-rearing ahead; a community in which pregnancy is not a source
of disadvantage and distress to women, and in which resources are directed
toward helping the distressed rather than killing their children.
Catholic Teaching on Conscience and Dissent
Catholics recognize that there is profound disagreement in the community about
the abortion issue. This does not however reduce the issues to ones of
personal choice. The morality of slavery or apartheid have been the source of
considerable disagreement: but this does not mean that these hard issues
should be left to the 'personal' decision of those involved.
Some have suggested that the issues of abortion and the respect due to unborn
human life are best left to the personal consciences of the women concerned.
The Catholic Church has always held to the primacy of conscience and taught
that individuals must follow their consciences even when they are.15
None the less it is important to understand the difference between conscience
and personal preference or arbitrary private intuition.16 Conscience is the
inner core of human beings whereby, compelled to seek the truth, they
recognize the objective standards of moral conduct, indeed the dictates of
God's law, and make a practical judgment of what is to be done here and now in
applying those standards.17 Thus the moral character of actions is determined
by objective criteria, not merely by the sincerity of intentions or the
goodness of motives,18 and all people are called to form their consciences
Deep within their conscience human persons discover a law which they have
not laid upon themselves but which they must obey. Its voice, ever
calling them to love and to do what is good and avoid evil, tells them
inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For human persons have
in their hearts a law inscribed by God... the more a correct conscience
prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and
try to be guided by the objective standards of moral conduct. Yet it
often happens that conscience goes astray through ignorance which it is
unable to avoid, without thereby losing its dignity. This cannot be said
of the person who takes little trouble to find out what is true and good,
or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of
- Second Vatican Council, (1965), ##27
How then do we form a right conscience? Catholics seek to inform their
consciences according to reason and revelation as guided by Church teachings.
They believe that by "their faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of
truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority
(), and obeying it, receives not the mere word of human beings,
but truly the word of God."19 It is to the pope and the bishops that this
teaching authority is entrusted. As the Second Vatican Council put it: "in
matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the
faithful, for their part, are obliged to accept their bishops' teaching with a
ready and respectful allegiance of mind" ( (1964), #25). Thus for
a Catholic to disagree with what the Church teaches on abortion, he or she
would need to have very clear reasons and convictions. These could only follow
a genuine search for meaning through docility to church teaching, reading,
prayer, taking counsel, developing the virtue of prudence, and so on. Any
conflict would then be within the person's conscience, rather than between
conscience and some alien magisterial authority.
In forming their consciences the faithful must pay careful attention to
the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is
by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. It is her duty to proclaim
and teach with authority the truth which is Christ and, at the same time,
to declare and confirm by her authority the principles of the moral order
which spring from human nature itself.
- Second Vatican Council, (1965), #14
It is sometimes rightly pointed out that no pope has proclaimed the Church's
teaching on abortion in a specific statement declaring it as an
essential matter of faith and infallibly true, and that there are degrees of
authority in magisterial pronouncements. But Catholics believe that even when
he does not speak the pope's authoritative teachings must be
accepted with respect and sincere assent, and that the consistent teaching of
the Church must be adhered to "with the loyal and obedient assent of faith"
(Vatican II, (1964), #25). The Church's teaching on abortion has
been unfailingly proposed throughout the centuries by popes, bishops and
theologians, and restated in the clearest possible terms by the Second Vatican
Council of all the bishops, as well as by all the popes of modern times and
the bishops' conferences of many countries (including almost annual statements
by our bishops). The gravity with which the Church views this matter is
demonstrated by the fact that the procurement of abortion is one of the few
offences which still incurs an automatic excommunication under the new Code of
Canon Law (CIC 1398).
Sometimes it is said that a person might publicly dissent from Church teaching
on a matter like abortion and still remain a Catholic. But those
who do are, of course, dissenting from a grave teaching of the Church.
Scholars and teachers may withhold assent provisionally from non-infallibly
proposed teaching under certain stringently defined conditions; they may still
debate such issues as 'ensoulment'; and they may wish to clarify and re-
present Church teaching in this area in contemporary terms. But they do not
serve the Church as authentic teachers if they publish views contrary to the
Church's unambiguous, explicit and highly authoritative teaching. The vocation
of other Catholics, such as politicians, lawyers and judges, is
to take the initiative in civilizing and making more humane and moral the
affairs of human society. 20
Thus the Catholic Church today is clearly the most outstanding mouthpiece for
the rights of the innocent and defenceless unborn, and many ordinary Catholics
suffer the 'martyrdom' of sticking to their often inconvenient and unpopular
principles on this matter which they believe is the greatest human rights
issue of our time. They do so because they believe abortion is the single most
pressing human rights issue of our time: a matter of life and death for
180,000 British babies every year.21
And they do so because they care about what kind of Britain we are building
for the twenty-first century. They dream of a society where nobody's
conscience will allow them to kill the weak and defenceless of whatever age,
state of physical or intellectual perfection, address or social class, a
society in which well-informed conscience rules, and thus justice, compassion
1. This committee also observed that any supposed distinction on the basis
of whether an early human being is wanted, implanted, has yet formed an
embryonic disc, is conscious etc., is arbitrary, ethically unsound and
impractical of application; and that while ever there is genuine dispute
among well-informed persons about the moral status of the embryo, prudence
dictates that, until the contrary be proven beyond reasonable doubt, the
embryo should be regarded as a full human subject. this
would apply to the more mature human being involved in abortion.
Sadly the Warnock Report (1985), probably the most weakly argued of all
the government reports on bioethics issued throughout the world in the
last two decades, did assert the kind of arbitrary distinction some ably
refuted by the Australian report. For a discussion of the arguments
raised by those who deny the personhood of the early embryo see: Anthony
Fisher, O.P., "Individuogenesis and a recent book by Fr Norman Ford,"
7(2) (1991), 199-244, and the sources cited therein.
2. The earliest surviving Christian moral teachings made no use of the
then-known distinction between formed and unformed unborn human life. The
the , Clement of Alexandria's
and Tertullian's in the 1st and 2nd centuries, Ss
Basil the Great, Ambrose and Jerome in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and many
since, held that abortion at any stage was homicide, and therefore the
embryo was from the beginning a human being. cf. Daughters of St Paul
(ed.), (Boston, 1977).
3. John Connery, (Chicago, 1977).
4. Were the philosophical principles of Aristotle and Aquinas correctly
applied to the data of modern embryology, the theory of delayed animation
becomes quite implausible: cf. Benedict Ashley, O.P., in , ed. by D.G. McCarthy & A.S.
Moraczewski (St Louis, 1976), 113- 33.
5. Vatican (1974) §§11-13: "The right to life is
the first right of the human person... the foundation and condition of all
other rights. It is not within the competence of society or any public
authority, whatever its form, to give this right to some and take it away
"Discrimination based on the various stages of human life is no more
justified than any other discrimination... 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 her/his own growth. It would never be made human if
it were not human already.
"This has always been clear, and discussions about the moment of animation
have no bearing on it. Modern genetic science offers clear confirmation.
It has been demonstrated that from the first instant there is established
the programme of what this living being will be: a human being, this
individual human being with her/his characteristic aspects already well
determined. Right from fertilization the adventure of human life begins."
6. Likewise Pope Paul VI declared: "We are obliged once more to declare
that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and,
above all, direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are absolutely
excluded as lawful means of birth control" (, 1968, #14).
7. Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,
(Declaration on Procured Abortion, 1974), n.19: "This declaration leaves
aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused... It
is a philosophical problem from which our moral affirmation remains
independent for two reasons: (i) supposing a later animation, there is
still nothing less than a life, preparing for and calling for a
soul in which the nature received from parents is completed; (ii) on the
other hand it suffices that this presence of the soul be (and
one can never prove the contrary) in order that the taking of life involve
accepting the risk of killing a human being, not only waiting for, but
already in possession of her/his soul."
8. Modern revivals of this view often point to the fact that during the
first two weeks after conception some human embryos split into identical
twins. These theorists conclude that the unborn at this stage is thus not
yet 'individual'. But we know that many creatures, such as amoebas and
roses, reproduce in this non-sexual way, and we do not deny that they are
'individual' before splitting. In the future it many very well be possible
to 'clone' human children directly from adults, but surely this would not
be regarded as proof that the adult was 'not an individual person'. Of
course, this dispute has little bearing on the many abortions which occur
well after the first two weeks.
9. In the Bible, as in the whole of Judeo-Christian tradition, human
beings are accorded great dignity (e.g. Is 57:16; Zech 12:1; 1 Cor 11:7).
They are made by God as the pinnacle of his creation (Gen 1; Is 45:9-13;
Zech 12:1), created uniquely in his image and likeness (Gen 1:26-31; 9:6;
Wis 2:23) as little less than gods themselves (Ps 8); they are known by
God, joined to God as in a marriage covenant (Hos 2; cf. Eph 5), destined
and oriented to God as their ultimate goal; the whole of creation is
ordered to their good and they are given dominion or stewardship over it
(Gen 1:28-31; 9:1-7). The Incarnation even further dignifies human beings:
the Son of God Himself became human, and died to redeem all people and
make them 'children of God'. The New Testament rings with this theme: "The
Word became flesh and lived among us" (Jn 1:14). In this Scriptural view,
therefore, human dignity and moral claims are based on membership of the
human family or species, with whom God has this special relationship. They
are not based on the person's stage of development, presently exercised
capacities, usefulness or wantedness.
10. Disregard for the value of human life is repeatedly deplored, in the
decalogue command not to kill and in many other places (e.g. Gen 4:8-11;
9:1-6; Ex 20:13; 21:22-25; 23:7; Dt 5:17; 2 Kings 8:12; 15:16; Jer
7:30-32; 19:4; 26:14-15; Mt 19:18 etc.).
11. In the Scriptures it is clear that the human being in the womb is
capable of being known by God and of entering into an intimate
relationship with God through the initiative of God's love and grace. The
existence of the human being before birth is clearly recognized (e.g. Gen
25:22; Pss 51:5; 78:6; 139; Sir 11:5; Is 49:15; Jon 3:3). God calls the
patriachs, judges, prophets and apostles while still in the womb (e.g.
Jacob in Is 44; Samson in Jud 13:5-7; David in Pss 2, 51:5, 110 & 139; Job
in Job 10; Isaiah in Is 49; Jeremiah in Jer 1:4-5; John the Baptist in Lk
1; Paul in Gal 1:15). The scriptural view is that personal identity is
continuous from when God gives life to maturity until death; and that the
moral claims of the 'neighbour' upon us are present in our fellow human
beings even from their conception.
12. e.g. Gen 4:1; 17:15-16; 18:11-14; 21:1-2; 28:3; 29:31-35; 30:22-23;
33:5; 49:25; 1 Sam chs 2,9,10; Ps 103:13; 113; 127:3-5; 128; Is 29:22-23;
40:11; Jer 31:15; Hos 11; Jon 4:11; Mal 4:6; Mt ch 1; 18:10; 19:13-15; Mk
13. Hence the killing of the unborn is deplored in the Old Testament (Ex
21:22-25 [exegesis controversial]; 2 Kings 8:12; 15:16; Job 3:16; Hos
14:1; Am 1:13-15; Is 13:18) as is the killing of the newborn (Ex 1; Lev
20:2-5; Dt 24:16; 28:53; 2 Kings 17:31; 1 Sam 15:33; Is 13:16-18; 57:5;
Lam 4:10; Ezek 16:20-21; 23:39; Mt 2; Acts 7:19). Dealers in poisons
('sorcerers') are repeatedly damned in the New Testament (Gal 5:20; Rev
9:21; 21:8; 22:15) - according to Plutarch (in XXII),
'sorcerers' included abortionists (hence sorcery and abortion are
condemned together in early Christian documents).
14. In the New Testament John the Baptist, still a foetus, first heralds
the embryonic Jesus while both are still in the womb: filled with the Holy
Spirit he leaps for joy (Lk 1:13-15, 41-44).
15. Vatican II, (1965), #2.
16. cf. Vatican II, (1965), #30, on
"wallowing in the luxury of a merely individualistic morality".
17. Rom 2:15-16; Vatican II, (1965), ##2,3; (1965), #16.
18. Vatican II, (1965), #51.
19. Vatican II, (1964), #12.
20. cf. Vatican II, (1965), #43.
21. An excellent presentation of the figures is given in Robert Whelan