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Roman Catholicism and abortion access

Overview: Evolution of Roman
Catholic positions on abortion

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A more detailed description of abortion beliefs from
400 BCE to 1980 CE is covered in a separate essay

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bullet "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

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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:

bullet At a specific time into pregnancy (40 days, 80 days, 116 days), or
bullet Quickening (when the woman first feels the fetus move), or
bullet At conception.

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 York, wrote:

"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

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A brief timeline:

bullet 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 abortions.
bullet Prior to 380 CE: Many Christian leaders issued unqualified condemnations of abortion. So did two church synods in the early 4th century:
bullet 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.
bullet 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).
bullet Pope Innocent III (1161-1216):
bullet He determined 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet Pope Gregory XIV (1591) revoked the previous Papal bull and reinstated the "quickening" test, which he determined happened 116 days into pregnancy (16 weeks).
bullet 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.
bullet Leo XIII (1878-1903):
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.

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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 Current Roman Catholic teaching
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. John Cardinal O'Connor, "Abortion: Questions and Answers," Priests for Life, at:
  3. St. Augustine, "On Exodus", (21, 80)

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Copyright 1997 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 1997
Latest update: 2007-JUL-29
Author: B.A. Robinson

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