Overview: Evolution of
Catholic positions on abortion
A more detailed description of abortion beliefs from
400 BCE to 1980 CE is covered in a separate essay
"What could ever be a sufficient reason for excusing in any way the
direct murder of the innocent? This is precisely what we are dealing
with here. Whether inflicted upon the mother or upon the child, it is
against the precept of God and the law of nature: 'Thou shalt not kill.' " Pope Pius XI
commenting on abortion in his
encyclical on Christian Marriage 1930-DEC-31. 1
A brief history:
Many religions, including many denominations within Christianity, have
adopted the general principle that abortion is a form of murder if it is
performed at or after the time that a soul enters the body of an embryo or
fetus. Down through the ages, beliefs varied about when this "animation" happened.
Various church authorities and popes placed the time at:
At a specific time into pregnancy
(40 days, 80 days, 116 days), or
the woman first feels the fetus move), or
The latter is
the current church teaching.
The Catholic Church has consistently taught that abortion -- at any stage of
development -- is evil. However, its stance has changed down through the years
on whether a given abortion is murder. John Cardinal O'Connor, Archbishop of New
"Pope Paul Vl declared that the teaching of the Church about the morality
of abortion 'has not changed and is unchangeable.' Although some people
point out that Saint Thomas Aquinas thought the soul did not come to the
fetus ('ensoulment') until sometime after conception, the fact is that he
considered abortion gravely sinful even before this time. He taught that it
was a 'grave sin against the natural law' to kill the fetus at any stage,
and a graver sin of homicide to do so after ensoulment." 2
A brief timeline:
Circa 100 to 150 CE: The Didache (also known as "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles"),
was a document written for the guidance of Christians. It forbade all
Prior to 380 CE: Many Christian leaders
issued unqualified condemnations of abortion. So did two church synods in
the early 4th century:
Circa 380 CE: The Apostolic Constitutions allowed abortion if it was done
early enough in pregnancy. But it condemned abortion if the fetus was of human shape
and contained a soul.
St. Augustine (354-430 CE) accepted
the Aristotelian Greek Pagan concept of "delayed ensoulment". He wrote that a human soul cannot live in an unformed body.
3 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).
Pope Innocent III (1161-1216):
Hedetermined that a monk who had
arranged for his lover to have an abortion was not guilty of murder if the fetus was not "animated"
at the time.
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. Before that time, abortion was a
less serious sin, because it terminated only potential human person, not an
actual human person.
Pope Sixtus V (1588) issued a Papal bull "Effraenatam" which
threatened those who carried out abortions at any stage of gestation with
excommunication and the death penalty.
Pope Gregory XIV (1591) revoked the previous Papal bull and reinstated the "quickening" test, which he
happened 116 days into pregnancy (16½ weeks).
Pope Pius IX (1869) dropped the
distinction between the "fetus animatus" and "fetus inanimatus."
The soul was believed to have entered the pre-embryo at conception.
Leo XIII (1878-1903):
He Issued a decree in 1884 that prohibited craniotomies. This is an
unusual form of abortion used under crisis situations late in pregnancy.
It is occasionally needed to save the life of the pregnant woman.
He issued a second degree in 1886 that prohibited all procedures
that directly killed the fetus, even if done to save the woman's life.
Canon law was revised in 1917 and 1983 to refer simply to "the fetus." The church
penalty for abortions at any
stage of pregnancy was, and remains, excommunication.