Roman Catholicism and abortion access
Pagan & Christian beliefs 400 BCE -1983 CE
An overview of Roman Catholic beliefs are described in a separate essay
4th Century BCE TO 1st Century
CE (Various beliefs):
In ancient times, the "delayed ensoulment" belief of Aristotle
(384-322 BCE) was widely accepted in Pagan Greece and Rome. He taught that a fetus
originally has a vegetable soul. This evolves into an animal soul later in gestation.
Finally the fetus is "animated" with a human soul.This latter event,
was believed to occur at 40 days after conception for male fetuses, and 90 days after
conception for female fetuses. 1 The difference was of little
consequence, because in those days, there were no tests to detect the start of pregnancy or to determine the gender of an embryo. Ultrasound devices and pregnancy test strips were millennia in the future.Thus abortions were not condemned if performed early in gestation when the embryo had a vegetable or animal soul. It was
only condemned if the abortion was done later in pregnancy that a human soul was destroyed. By
coincidence, this 90 day limit happens to be approximately equal to the end of the first
trimester, the point at which the US Supreme Court decided that states could begin to
restrict a woman's access to abortion. The 40 and 90 day limits also bear a striking
resemblance to the 40 and 80 day periods when a woman was considered ritually impure after
birth in Judaism (Leviticus 12:2-6). Both concepts denigrated females at the time.The Jewish faith was generally opposed to both infanticide and
abortion. An exception occurred if the continuation of a pregnancy posed a
risk to the life of the pregnant woman or to her other children. In such
cases, the pregnant woman is actually obligated to abort the fetus; the
fetus is then considered "radef" -- a pursuer.Early in the 1st
century CE, a well-known Jewish philosopher -- Philo of Alexandria -- (20 BCE - circa 47 CE) wrote on infanticide and
condemning non-Jews of other cultures and religions for the widespread,
2nd Century CE TO 4th Century CE
(Abortion = Murder):
There were three main movements within early
Christianity. Two did not succeed: Jewish Christianity -- centered in Jerusalem and founded by Jesus' disciples -- and Gnostic Christianity.
The third, Pauline Christianity, flourished and evolved into the Christian Church. It was surrounded by a mosaic of
other competing religions within the Roman Empire, including Judaism,
the Greek state religion, Mithraism, the Roman state religion, and various Mystery
religions. With the exception of Judaism, most or all of the competing religions allowed
women to have abortions and allowed parents to kill new-born
babies by strangulation or exposing them as methods of population control.There are many writings, letters and petitions of
early Christian philosophers and Church Fathers which equated abortion with infanticide
and condemned both as murder. Uta Ranke-Heinemann 3 quotes
a number of early writings. We obtained others from an Email.
Statements by individuals:
Barnabas: "You shall not kill either the fetus by abortion
or the new born" (Letter of Barnabas, circa 125)|
||Anon: An unknown author writing circa 135 CE in The Apocalypse of Peter:
||"I saw a gorge in which the discharge and excrement of the tortured
ran down and became like a lake. There sat women, and the discharge came
up to their throats; and opposite them sat many children, who were born
prematurely, weeping. And from them went forth rays of fire and smote
the women on the eyes. These were those who produced children outside of
marriage, and who procured abortions."
||"Those who slew the unborn children will be tortured forever, for
God wills it to so."
Athenagoras: "We say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God. For the same person,
would not regard the child in the womb as a living being and therefore an object
of God's care and then kill it.... But we are altogether consistent in our
conduct. We obey reason and do not override it." Petition to Emperor
Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), circa 150 CE
Clement of Alexandria: (circa 150 - 215 CE) "Our whole life can go on in observation of the
laws of nature, if we gain dominion over our
desires from the beginning and if we do not kill,
by various means of a perverse art, the human
offspring, born according to the designs of divine
providence; for these women who, if order to
hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which
expel the child completely dead, abort at the same time
their own human feelings." Paedagogus 2|
Tertullian (circa 155 - 225 CE): "...we are not permitted,
since murder has been prohibited to us once and for all, even to destroy
...the fetus in the womb. It makes no difference whether one destroys a life
that has already been born or one that is in the process of birth." 4|
St. Hippolytus (circa 170-236 CE): "Reputed believes began to resort to drugs for
producing Sterility and to gird themselves round,
so as to expel what was conceived on account of
their not wanting to have a child either by a slave
or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their
family and excessive wealth. Behold, into how
great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by
inculcating adultery and murder at the same
time." From "Refutation of all Heresies" 9:7|
Minicius Felix (a Christian lawyer; circa 180 - 225 CE):
"Some women take medicines to destroy the germ of future life in their
own bodies. They commit infanticide before they have given birth to the
St. Basil the Great (circa 330 - 379 CE): "She who has deliberately destroyed a fetus has
to pay the penalty of murder...here it is not only
the child to be born that is vindicated, but also
the woman herself who made an attempt against
her own life, because usually the women die in
such attempts. Furthermore, added to this is the
destruction of the child, another murder... Moreover, those, too, who give drugs causing
abortion are deliberate murderers themselves, as well as
those receiving the poison which kills the fetus." Letter
St. Ambrose: (339 to 397 CE) "The poor expose their
children, the rich kill the fruit of their own bodies in the womb, lest
their property be divided up, and they destroy their own children in the
womb with murderous poisons. and before life has been passed on, it is
St. John Chrysostom (circa 340 - 407 CE): "Why sow where the ground makes it its care to
destroy the fruit? Where there are many efforts at
abortion? Where there is murder before the birth?
For you do not even let the harlot remain a mere
harlot, but make her a murderer also. You see
how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom
to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather
something even worse than murder. For I have
no real name to give it, since it does not destroy
the thing born but prevents its being born. Why
then do you abuse the gift of God and fight with
His laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a
blessing, and make the place of procreation a
chamber for murder, and arm the woman that
was given for childbearing unto slaughter?" Homily 24 on Romans|
St. Jerome (circa 342-420 CE): "They drink potions to ensure sterility and are
guilty of murdering a human being not yet
conceived. Some, when they learn that they are
with child through sin, practice abortion by the
use of drugs. Frequently they die themselves and
are brought before the rulers of the lower world
guilty of three crimes: suicide, adultery against
Christ, and murder of an unborn child." Letter
||Tertullian circa 160-240 CE:|
||"For us [Christians] we may not destroy even the fetus in the
womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the
body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier
man-killing; nor does it matter when you take away a life that is born,
or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to
be one: you have the fruit already in the seed." Apology 9:6
||"They [John and Jesus] were both alive while still in the womb.
Elizabeth rejoiced as the infant leaped in her womb; Mary glorifies the
Lord because Christ within inspired her. Each mother recognizes her
child and is known by her child who is alive, being not merely souls but
also spirits." De A ninta 26:4
Statements by groups:
The Didache (also known as "The Teaching of the Twelve
dates from the first half of the second century CE. It states: "Thou
shalt not murder a child by abortion."
(2:2) It also says that "The Way of Death is filled with people who are...murderers of children and abortionists of
God's creatures." (5:1-2)
The Synod of Elvira, held in Spain in 306 CE: "If a woman
becomes pregnant by committing adultery, while her husband is absent, and
after the act she destroys the child, it is proper to keep her from
communion until death, because she has doubled her crime." Canon 63.
The Synod of Ancyra, held in 314 CE, condemned abortion. The penalty was 10 years
The Apostolic Constitutions (circa 380 CE) allowed abortion if it was done
early enough in pregnancy. But it condemned abortion if the fetus was
of human shape. "Thou shalt not slay the child
by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten. For everything that is
shaped, and his received a soul from God, if slain, it shall be avenged, as
being unjustly destroyed." 7:3:15 This document claimed to have been
written by the apostles. However, it was actually written late in the 4th
century CE at about the time that Christianity became the official religion
of the Roman Empire and serious oppression of Paganism started.
Priests for Life quote this passage on their web site, but delete the words
after "begotten" and before "If" -- thus reversing the meaning of the
5th TO 16th Century CE
(Various beliefs on whether abortion is murder):
St. Augustine (354-430 CE) reversed centuries of Christian teaching in
Western Europe, by returning to
the Aristotelian Pagan concept of "delayed ensoulment." He wrote 7
that a human soul cannot live in an unformed body. Thus, early in pregnancy, an abortion
is not murder because no soul is destroyed (or, more accurately, only a vegetable or
animal soul is terminated). He wrote extensively on sexual matters, teaching that the
original sin of Adam and Eve are passed to each successive generation through the pleasure
generated during sexual intercourse. This passed into the church's canon law. Only
abortion of a more fully developed "fetus animatus" (animated fetus) was
punished as murder.
Augustine had little influence over the beliefs of Orthodox Christianity.
They retained their original anti-abortion stance.
St. Jerome (circa 340 - 420) wrote in a letter to Aglasia:
"The seed gradually takes shape in the uterus, and it [abortion]
does not count as killing until the individual elements have acquired their
external appearance and their limbs"8
Starting in the 7th century CE, a series of penitentials were written in the
West. These listed an
array of sins, with the penance that a person must observe as punishment for the sin.
Certain "sins" which prevented conception had particularly heavy penalties.
||practicing a particularly ineffective form of birth control, coitus interruptus
(withdrawal of the penis prior to ejaculation)
||engaging in oral sex or anal sex
||becoming sterile by artificial means, such as by consuming sterilizing poisons.
Abortion, on the other hand, required a less serious penance. Theodore, who organized
the English church, assembled a penitential about 700 CE. Oral intercourse required from 7
years to a lifetime of penance; an abortion required only 120 days.
Pope Stephen V (served 885-891) wrote in 887 CE: "If he who destroys what
is conceived in the womb by abortion is a murderer, how much more is he unable
to excuse himself of murder who kills a child even one day old." "Epistle to
Archbishop of Mainz."
Pope Innocent III (circa 1161-1216):
He wrote a letter which ruled on a case of a Carthusian monk
who had arranged for his female lover to obtain an abortion. The Pope decided that the
monk was not guilty of homicide if the fetus was not "animated."
Early in the 13th century he stated that the soul enters the body of
the fetus at the time of "quickening" - when the woman first feels movement of
the fetus. After ensoulment, abortion was equated with murder; before that time, it was a
less serious sin, because it terminated only potential human life, not human life.
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) also considered only the abortion of an
"animated" fetus as murder.
Pope Sixtus V (1471-1484) issued a Papal bull "Effraenatam" in 1588 which
threatened those who carried out abortions at any stage of gestation with
excommunication and the death penalty.
Pope Gregory XIV (1535-1591) revoked the Papal bull shortly
after taking office in 1591. He reinstated the "quickening" test, which he
happened 116 days (about 17 weeks) into pregnancy.
17th TO 19th Century CE
(Abortion becomes murder again):
In the 17th century, the concept of "simultaneous animation" gained
acceptance within the medical and church communities in Western Europe.9 This
is the belief that an embryo acquires a soul at conception, not at 40, 80. or
116 days into
gestation as the church had been teaching.
Hieronymus Florentinius, a Franciscan monk, asserted
In 1658 that all embryos or fetuses, regardless of their gestational age, which were in danger of
death must be baptized. However, his opinion did not change the status of abortion as seen
by the church.
Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) reversed the stance of the Roman Catholic church once more. He dropped the
distinction between the "fetus animatus" and "fetus inanimatus" in
Leo XIII (1878-1903):
He issued a decree in 1884 that prohibited craniotomies. This is
an unusual form of abortion used late in pregnancy and is occasionally
needed to save the life of the pregnant woman.
He issued a second decree in 1886 that prohibited all procedures that
directly killed the fetus, even if done to save the woman's life. The
tolerant approach to abortion which had prevailed in the Roman Catholic
Church for previous centuries ended. The church required excommunication for abortions at any
stage of pregnancy. This position has continued to the present time and forms a main component of the Church's "Culture of Life." Unfortunately, it can result in the avoidable death of both the fetus and the pregnant woman, as almost happened during 2009 at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, AZ.
Canon law was revised in 1917 and 1983 to refer simply to "the fetus."
Related essays in this web site:
Aristotle "History of Animals, Book VII, Chapter 3, 583b.
Philo of Alexandria, "On the Individual Laws", 3, 20, 110.
Uta Ranke-Heinemann, "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality and
the Catholic Church", Doubleday, New York NY, (1990). Pages 68-70
Tertullian, "Apology" (9:7-8)
Minucius Felix, "Octavious (30, 2)
Ambrose, "Hexaemeron", (5, 18, 58)
St. Augustine, "On Exodus", (21, 80)
St Jerome, "Epistle" (121, 4)
- Uta Ranke-Heinemann, op cit., Page 298-311
"The Apostolic Constitutions," Priests for Life, at:
Copyright © 1997 to 2013 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2013-OCT-22
Author: B.A. Robinson