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Roman Catholicism and abortion access

Current Roman Catholic teaching

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Current church policy:

The Catholic church regards the fifth of the Ten Commandments ("Thou shalt not kill") as governing in most instances where the life of an embryo or fetus is artificially and directly terminated. (This is the sixth commandment according to the numbering system used by most Protestants and Eastern Orthodox churches.) They teach that a human person comes into existence at conception, perhaps two weeks before pregnancy begins. (Physicians regard pregnancy as beginning after conception, when the fertilized ovum implants itself in the wall of the uterus.)

An author in Touchstone Magazine wrote:

"...there are no cases in which the Orthodox Church or the Roman Catholic Church...condones abortion...The act is murder, and it is always murder, and there are no circumstances, whatever, in which murder is a legitimate moral option. The deliberate, directly intended killing of an innocent life is a sin that screams to heaven for vengeance. Always, in all circumstances, and with no exceptions." 5

Touchstone Magazine is a conservative Christian magazine "with editors and readers from each of the three great divisions of Christendom—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox." 6

The Tribunal of the Holy Office ruled on 1894-MAY-28 and 1889-AUG-19 that:

"It cannot be safely taught in Catholic schools that it is lawful to perform...any surgical operation which is directly destructive of the life of the fetus or the mother."

This would seem to include operations needed to save the life of the woman.

The fertilized ovum, pre-embryo, embryo and fetus are considered by the church to be full human persons. They thus have:

"... an equal right to its life with its mother; therefore neither the mother, nor medical practitioner, nor any human being whatever can lawfully take that life away. The State cannot give such right to the physician; for it has not itself the right to put an innocent person to death. No matter how desirable it might seem to be at times to save the life of the mother, common sense teaches and all nations accept the maxim, that 'evil is never to be done that good may come of it'; or, which is the same thing, that 'a good end cannot justify a bad means'. " 7

In his encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI wrote:

"It is not licit, even for the gravest reasons to do evil so that good may follow there from, that is, to make into the object of a positive act of the will something which is intrinsically disordered, and hence unworthy of the human person, even when the intention is to safeguard or promote individual, family or social well being...directly willed and procured abortion, even if for therapeutic reasons [is] to be absolutely excluded." 8

When a delivery goes terribly wrong, and the attending physicians have the choice of:
bullet Killing the fetus, and saving the life of the woman, or
bullet Doing nothing, allowing nature to take its course, and watching both the woman and fetus die,
the only moral decision in the eyes of the church is the latter.

The Roman Catholic church has occasionally "held funeral and burial services" for aborted fetuses. However, this has not been the general rule. Embryos and pre-viable fetus have not usually been considered full persons to the extent that they are considered worthy of a formal requiem mass or a formal burial service.

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Related essays in this web site:

bullet Abortion: all aspects; all points of view
bullet Pagan & Christian beliefs 400 BCE -1980 CE
bullet Evolution of Roman Catholic positions on abortion: Overview
bullet Exceptions to the Roman Catholic ban on abortion
bullet Jewish beliefs about abortion

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Pope Pius XI, "Christian Marriage," 1930-DEC-31 at:
  2. St. Augustine, "On Exodus", (21, 80)
  3. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church", Doubleday, New York NY, (1990). Pages 298-311
  4. John Cardinal O'Connor, "Abortion: Questions and Answers," (1990), Page 23.
  5. Patrick Reardon, "Abortion & the mother's life," Touchstone Magazine. Online at:
  6. "Touchstone: A journal of mere Christianity" has a home page at
  7. "Abortion," New Advent. Translated from the Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (1907). Online at:
  8. Pope Paul VI, "Humanae Vitae. Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the regulation of birth," 1968-JUL-25, at:
  9. "Apostolic Consitutions - Didache Book VII," at:
  10. "Excerpt from … The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles; The Didache; (1st Century AD)," Priests for Life, at:
  11. "The Apostolic Constitutions," Priests for Life, at:
  12. John Cardinal O'Connor, "Abortion: Questions and Answers," Priests for Life, at:

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Copyright © 1997 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 1997
Latest update: 2007-MAY-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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