Abortion and the Catholic Conscience
[Note: This article is written by Anthony Fisher OP who has extensive experience with
pro life issues in Australia. The article represents a summary of the Catholic
Church's position on abortion. The article is written in clear & precise
Ch. 1 Catholic Teaching on Abortion
From time to time we hear it suggested, even at times by Catholic politicians
and academics, 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 Catholics.
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 Charter on the Rights of the Family (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)
"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
- 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'.(1) 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 or the killing of aborigines (Native Australians).(2)
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.(3) Even those
who argued for delayed hominization did not use the time of ensoulment as a moral
dividing line between permissible and immoral abortions.(4)
From the earliest centuries the Christian Church was noted for its opposition to
all abortion and most Christian theologians taught that abortion at any stage 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
Didache, 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.(5) 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.(6)
Thus the Second Vatican Council, aware of the debate over ensoulment, declared that:
"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."(7)
Some academics still argue about when the embryo first has a human soul-
and the Church does not purport to referee that dispute.(8) 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 concludes:
"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."(9)
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 medival 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?(10)
What kind of magic makes the unborn suddenly become human?
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
Australian 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 preminent
Catholic faith only magnifies these concerns. Belief in a Creator God who is
the author of human life and who greatly dignifies it,(11) deploring and forbidding the
killing of the innocent,(12) 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,(13) who treasures all children and grants them as a blessing to their parents,(14)
and who cares about the deaths even of the youngest,(15) 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 cousin(16) 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 Australian
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.
Ch. 2 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 the killing of the Tasmanian aborigine or of the system of
apartheid in South Africa 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
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 wrong.(17)
None the less it is important to understand the difference between conscience
and personal preference or arbitrary private intuition.(18) 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.(19) Thus the
moral character of actions is determined by objective criteria, not merely by the
sincerity of intentions or the goodness of motives,(20) and all people are called to form
their consciences accordingly.
"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 committing
- Second Vatican Council, The Church in the Modern World (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 (magisterium), and obeying it, receives
not the mere word of human beings, but truly the word of God."(21) 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". 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, On Religious Liberty (1965), #14.
It is sometimes rightly pointed out that no pope has proclaimed the Church's
teaching on abortion in a specific ex cathedra 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
ex cathedra 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" (to quote Vatican II).(23) 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 the
Australian 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
Sometimes it is said that a person might publicly dissent from Church teaching
on a matter like abortion and still remain a bona fide 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, is a fortiori to take the initiative in
civilizing and making more humane and moral the affairs of human society.(25)
Thus the Catholic Church today is clearly the most outstanding spokesman 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, to quote the Australian bishops, that:
"From the moment of its conception human life must be guarded with the
greatest care. Abortion is an unspeakable crime."
- Australian Catholic Bishops, August 1972
And they do so because they care about what kind of Australia 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 and truth.
ANTHONY FISHER OP
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. A fortiori this would apply to
the more mature human being involved in abortion.
2. Last century, Australia's first Catholic bishop, John Bede Polding, tried to awaken consciences about the
maltreatment of aborigines. He came up against those who "in justification of a great crime... [had]
striven to believe that these are not our fellow creatures". He also opposed those who, while admitting
that the aborigines were human beings, justified killing or abusing them because of some perceived threat
to what we would call today the `quality of life' of farmers and others. Catholics today voice a similar
concern against practices which treat the unborn as not our fellow creatures, or which recognize their
humanity but dispose of them on because they threaten someone else's life-style. If we would not dismiss
Polding's concern as `a religious opinion' or `bigotry', the Church's prophetic efforts today ought to be
granted a similar hearing. Thus Vanstone, op.cit., is unjust in characterizing the debate in terms of
separation of Church and state.
3. The earliest surviving Christian moral teachings made no use of the then-known distinction between
formed and unformed unborn human life. The Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, Clement of Alexandria's
Pdagogus and Tertullian's Apology 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.), Yes to Life:
Source-book of Catholic Teaching on the Sacredness of Human Life (Boston, 1977).
4. John Connery, Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective (Chicago, 1977).
5. 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 An
Ethical Evaluation of Fetal Experimentation, ed. by D.G. McCarthy & A.S. Moraczewski (St Louis, 1976),
6. Vatican Declaration on Abortion (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 from others.
"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."
7. Second Vatican Council, The Church in the Modern World (1965), ##27,51. 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" (Human vit, 1968, #14).
8. Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Questio de abortu (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 human 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 probable (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
9. Vatican, Respect for Human Life in its Origin etc. (1987).
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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.).
13. 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.
14. 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 9:33-37; 10:13-16.
15. 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 Romulus XXII), `sorcerers' included
abortionists (hence sorcery and abortion are condemned together in early Christian documents).
16. 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).
17. Vatican II, On Religious Liberty (1965), #2.
18. cf. Vatican II, The Church in the Modern World (1965), #30, on "wallowing in the luxury of a merely
19. Rom 2:15-16; Vatican II, On Religious Liberty (1965), ##2,3; The Church in the Modern World (1965),
20. Vatican II, The Church in the Modern World (1965), #51.
21. Vatican II, The Church (1964), #12.
22. Vatican II, The Church (1964), #25.
23. Vatican II, The Church (1964), #25.
24. Code of Canon Law, can. 1398.
cf. Vatican II, The Church in the Modern World (1965), #43.