Roman Catholicism & Abortion

From the beginning, the Catholic Church has spoken out against abortion: a teaching which, according to the Cathchism of the Catholic Church 2271, "has not changed and remains unchangeable."
  • Early Christians were well known for the fact that they wered opposed to abortion as well as infanticide.
  • In the first three centuries abortion was condemned regardless of what stage of the pregnancy it was performed.
  • From the 4th century distinctions were made between early and late abortions although it was still regarded as immoral.
  • In 1869 Pope Pious IX determined that abortion at any stage of pregnancy required excommunication.
  • Abortion has been formally condemned by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).
Abortion advocates and Catholic dissenters frequently make inaccurate and misleading statements about the Catholic Church's current and historical teaching on abortion.

From the beginning the Catholic Church has always spoken out against abortion: a teaching which, according to the Cathchism of the Catholic Church 2271, "has not changed and remains unchangeable."

The New Testament
Although there are no specific references to abortion in the Bible, the New Testament teaches the clear relationship God had with the unborn Jesus. Soon after Mary conceived she went on a journey to visit her pregnant older cousin Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, her child, John the Baptist, "leaps for joy" in her womb.

Elizabeth greeted Mary as already being the "mother of my Lord," (Luke 1:41-44) despite the fact that she was at an early stage of her pregnancy.

The Catholic Church later, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451AD, made a solemn declaration that Jesus became a human being at the moment of conception. The implications of this for the moral status of all unborn children, has always been significant for Catholics since, according to Scripture, Jesus is "like us in all things but sin." (Heb.4:15)

Christian Tradition
From its very foundation, the Roman Catholic Church has spoken out against abortion.

In the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) which dates from the 1st century, abortion is condemned along with infanticide. Early Christians in pagan times were well-known for the fact that they were as opposed to abortion as they were to 'exposing' newborn babies so that they would die.

In the first three centuries of Christianity, abortion was condemned no matter at what stage of the pregnancy it was performed. The writer Tertullian wrote in 197AD:
"It does not matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. In both instances, destruction is murder.


"It does not matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. In both instances, destruction is murder.

"For us [Christians], murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the foetus 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 quicker murder; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already present in the seed."
- Apologia 9.4-6

(Tertullian was later condemned as a Montanist heretic by the Catholic Church, but that had nothing to do with his condemnation of abortion.)

Many early Christian Writers such as Athenagoras, Basil the Great, Jerome, Origen, Cyprian, John Chrysotom, and others, all opposed abortion.The Council of Ancyra (314) referred to an ancient law that excommunicated women who deliberately aborted their children.
It was agreed that abortion was seriously wrong, but for centuries theologians could not reach agreement as to whether or not a child had a rational soul from the moment of conception.

Distinctions and Disagreements
From the fourth century onwards, distinctions came to be drawn. Augustine, has been quoted as permitting abortion because a "soul cannot live in an unformed body," thus early abortion could not be murder since no soul had been destroyed. (On Exodus, 21, 80) Despite that statement, Augustine also warned against the terrible crime of "the murder of an unborn child" (On Marriage, 1.17.15).

It was agreed that abortion was seriously wrong, but for centuries theologians could not reach agreement as to whether or not a child had a rational soul from the moment of conception.

The Decretals of Pope Gregory IX,(a papal letter or decree giving a decision on a point or question of canon law) the first collection of church laws promulgated with papal authority for the universal church in 1324, list one canon which designates as a "murderer" one who causes an abortion. The decretals kept the notion of "formed" and "nonformed" to determine the kinds of penalties to be applied for this crime.

Throughout the 13th and succeeding centuries the particular councils of the Church continued to strongly condemned abortion.

The first significant papal legislation to invoke penal sanctions against abortion was the Constitution "EFFRAENATAM" of Pope Sixtus V (1585-90) of October 29, 1588. This constitution listed severe penalties against the crime of abortion of an unborn child without any reference at all being made to the distinction of whether the foetus was animated or nonanimated.
Apart from the great schism of Photius and when the Eastern Othodox Church broke with Rome, the Church was "One" until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and abortion was universally condemned.


Pope Gregory XIV in 1591 slightly altered the constitution of Sixtus V to apply the harsh penalties only to those cases which involved the abortion of an animated fetus (one whose movements could be felt). However, his constitution still taught the grave seriousness of the offense of any abortion.

Apart from the great schism of Photius and then that of Caerularius, in the ninth and eleventh centuries, when the Eastern Othodox Church broke with Rome, the Church was "One" until the Protestant Reformation which started with Luther in the 16th century, and abortion was universally condemned.

The 'abuse' of indulgences furnished Luther with an opportunity to attack indulgences in general, and this attack was the immediate occasion of the Reformation in Germany. A little later the same motive led Zwingli to put forth his teachings, thereby inaugurating the Reformation in German Switzerland.

Both Luther and Zwingli declared that they were attacking only the abuses of indulgences; however, they soon taught doctrine in many ways contrary to the teaching of the Church.

In Germany, Luther had omitted the word Catholic from the Creed, but this was not the case in England. The term "Roman" or "Romish" Catholic first came into use by Protestant writers in the early 17th century who highly resented the Roman claim to any monopoly of the term Catholic.
With few exceptions, Catholics were united in accepting the authority of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church on its condemnation of abortion.

Until this time Catholics were united in accepting the authority of the Magisterium (teaching body) of the Catholic Church on its condemnation of abortion, although there have always been individual and small groups of dissenters just as there are today.

The Penalty of Excommunication
In 1869 Pope Pius IX returned to immediate post-apostolic times and determined that abortion at any stage of pregnancy required excommunication. Many interpreted this change of attitude by the church as a counter to the rising birth control movement, particularly in France where the Catholic population was declining.

In 1869 in Apostolicae Sedis, Pope Pius IX returned to immediate post-apostolic times and determined that abortion at any stage of pregnancy required excommunication. He said all abortion was homicide. (Many interpreted this change of attitude by the church as a counter to the rising birth control movement, particularly in France where the Catholic population had been declining for the previous 60 years.)
The Catholic Church has always regarded abortion as a grave sin but, from the 19th century onwards, came to have a deeper understanding of how it destroys one's personal relationship with God.


The Catholic Church has always regarded abortion as a grave sin but, from the 19th century onwards, came to have a deeper understanding of how it destroys one's personal relationship with God.

Changes in the canonical penalty for a specific sin reflect how the Church works to wean people away from sin and towards heaven. They did not reflect a change in the Church.s condemnation of the sin.

The Catholic Church concerns itself with faith and morals, not biology, and Church officials over the centuries were simply attempting to shed light on the development of the unborn child, given contemporary biological knowledge.

Recent Church Statements
Since the second half on the 20th century, in light of developments in both science and theological thinking, many theologians have come to the conclusion that life begins at the moment of conception.

The Catholic Church teaches that the mere possibility that the embryo is a person is sufficient for an absolute ban on abortion.

The 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion states:
The first right of the human person is his life... this one is fundamental-- the condition of all the others.


"The first right of the human person is his life... this one is fundamental-- the condition of all the others. Hence it must be protected above all others. It does not belong to society, nor does it belong to public authority in any form to recognize this right for some and not for others...

"...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 his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already."

In 1987, another document, Donum Vitae (The Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation) said:

"...the inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state: they pertain to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his or her origin."

"Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard ... every human being's right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death..."
The law cannot tolerate that human beings, even at the embryonic stage, should be treated as objects of experimentation, be mutilated or destroyed with the excuse that they are superfluous or incapable of developing normally.


"As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of his conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child's rights. The law cannot tolerate -- indeed it must expressly forbid -- that human beings, even at the embryonic stage, should be treated as objects of experimentation, be mutilated or destroyed with the excuse that they are superfluous or incapable of developing normally."

In 1989, the New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference issued a Statement What's Wrong With Abortion? in defence of the unborn child's right to life.

Evangelium Vitae -The Gospel of Life
In Evangelium Vitae, the Church recognises that "decisions that go against life sometimes arise from difficult or even tragic situations of profound suffering, loneliness, a total lack of economic prospects, depression and anxiety about the future..."

The 'Gospel of Life' details what the Catholic Church believes and teaches about the sacredness of human life and the duty of every person to protect the innocent and vulnerable, and to show care and respect, above all where life is undermined by sickness and old age.

"Among all the crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable. The Second Vatican Council defines abortion, together with infanticide, as an "unspeakable crime"
The excommunication affects all those who commit this crime with knowledge of the penalty attached, and thus includes those accomplices without whose help the crime would not have been committed.


Canon Law (the officially established rules of the Church) decrees that "a person who actually procures an abortion incurs automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication". The excommunication affects all those who commit this crime with knowledge of the penalty attached, and thus includes those accomplices without whose help the crime would not have been committed.

It called on women to transform the culture so that it supports life, and to promote a "new feminism" which rejects the temptation of imitating models of "male domination", in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.

In EV the Pope had a special word to women who have had an abortion, asking them to understand what happened and face it honestly. He asked that they "give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance" in order to find God's forgiveness and peace.

In the case of abortion, this means that any treatment done to save the life of the mother that also results in the death of an unborn child is not truly an abortion, since the death of the child was not the primary intention.
Mother's Life at Risk
Of all the "hard cases," this is perhaps the hardest of all. The Catholic Church along with most other religions, recognises the moral principal of what is called the "double effect."

In the case of abortion, this means that any treatment done to save the life of the mother that also results in the death of an unborn child is not truly an abortion, since the death of the child was not the primary intention.

In such a case, even if the death of the child is a foregone conclusion, the death was an indirect effect of the surgical procedure.

Such cases are extremely rare. Some of the treatments that may indirectly kill an unborn child include certain cancer treatments such as the removal of a cancerous or highly traumatised uterus, removal of a fallopian tube, and in the case of an ectopic pregnancy.

It is expected however, that the doctor must delay treatment as long as possible in order to try to save the child as well as the woman.

The Principal of "Double Effect" applies only in the case of an actual and proximate threat to the life of the mother. It does not apply under the loose assertion that "all pregnancies threaten the life of the mother because pregnancy is more dangerous than abortion."

Pro-abortion Catholic Politicians
A Document "on some questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life" was issued from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, November 24, 2002, with the Pope's approval. It stated:

"The complex array of today's problems branches out from here, including some never faced by past generations.
Scientific progress has resulted in advances that are unsettling for the consciences of men and women and call for solutions that respect ethical principles in a coherent and fundamental way.


"Scientific progress has resulted in advances that are unsettling for the consciences of men and women and call for solutions that respect ethical principles in a coherent and fundamental way. At the same time, legislative proposals are put forward which, heedless of the consequences for the existence and future of human beings with regard to the formation of culture and social behaviour, attack the very inviolability of human life.

"Catholics, in this difficult situation, have the right and the duty to recall society to a deeper understanding of human life and to the responsibility of everyone in this regard.

"John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a "grave and clear obligation to oppose" any law that attacks human life.For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.

"As John Paul II has taught in his Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae regarding the situation in which it is not possible to overturn or completely repeal a law allowing abortion which is already in force or coming up for a vote, "an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality".
A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.


"In this context, it must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine.

"A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church's social doctrine does not exhaust one's responsibility towards the common good. Nor can a Catholic think of delegating his Christian responsibility to others; rather, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives him this task, so that the truth about man and the world might be proclaimed and put into action.

"When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic committment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility.In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person.

"This is the case with laws concerning abortion and euthanasia (not to be confused with the decision to forgo extraordinary treatments, which is morally legitimate).Such laws must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death.In the same way, it is necessary to recall the duty to respect and protect the rights of the human embryo."

Cardinal Ratzinger (prior to being elected pope Benedict XVI)
Prefect