Virgin and Child, Enthroned, The Master of Moulins, 1499


by Dr. Donald DeMarco


[Dr. Donald DeMarco is an associate professor of philosophy at St. Jerome's College at the University of Waterloo. He studied theology at the Gregorian in Rome and earned his Ph.D. at St. John's University in New York. He is the author of Abortion in Perspective, Sex and the Illusion of Freedom, and Today's Family in crisis. His most recent book is The Anesthetic Society (Christendom, 1982). ]







A carefully developed, historically accurate treatment of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion is valid and desirable in its own right, that is, for scholarly reasons alone. The moral teaching of the Church on abortion throughout history is obviously pertinent to the church historian, the moral theologian and the Catholic philosopher. The manner in which the current abortion debate is being conducted, however, provides an additional reason for such a treatment. Pro-abortion polemicists, after having sought to identify the antiabortion movement with the Catholic Church, have now attempted to discredit Church authority by arguing that its teaching on abortion has been, throughout history, inconsistent, self-contradictory, unscientific and politically inspired.

Two rather salient facts make it apparent that the anti-abortion movement is not identifiable with the new Catholic Church:

1) the presence of hundreds of thousands of non-Catholic individuals who actively oppose abortion, together with the existence of many anti-abortion groups who are affiliated with non-Catholic agencies and institutions;

2) the fact that the underlying reasons for the Catholic Church’s condemnation of abortion are philosophical and humanitarian, based on the right to life of innocent human beings, and therefore are not peculiarly Catholic.

The assertion that Catholic Church teaching on abortion throughout history is confused and inconsistent is historically indefensible. The historical record shows beyond any doubt that the Church’s teaching, namely that abortion is a grave moral evil, has been clear, emphatic, and unwavering. Therefore, an historically accurate treatment of the Church’s teaching on abortion shows that the pro-abortionist’s claims against the Church are without foundation. At the same time, such a treatment shows the Church to be not only a reliable and consistent teaching authority on the subject of abortion, but also a compassionate and balanced one, fully sensitive to the rights of everyone involved—including the pregnant woman—and deeply aware of abortion’s psychological and social implications. It is with these considerations in mind that the following presentation has been prepared.






The Church’s teaching that direct, induced abortion is always a grave evil has been clear, emphatic, and unwavering. Nonetheless, surrounding this core of consistent teaching, and entirely extrinsic to it, have been other matters that people have often confused with Church teaching. It is important, therefore, to distinguish between what is and what is not Church teaching.

The first distinction to be made is between moral law (as conceived in the Catholic tradition) and canonical penalty. Whereas the Church’s moral law has always classified every destruction of the unborn as gravely sinful, its canonical penalties have varied throughout history and were sometimes modified either by the cultural attitudes and scientific opinions of the day, or because of their lack of effectiveness. Rev. R. J. Huser’s careful study of the development of canon law with regard to abortion provides extensive amplification of this point.1 In 1588, for example. Pope Sixtus V tried to discourage abortion by issuing severe penalties, such as reserving absolution from excommunication for all those who procured abortions to the Holy See. A few years of experience showed that the severity of this penalty was not only ineffective, but occasioned much spiritual harm inasmuch as it discouraged people from going to confession. Accordingly, in 1591, Pope Gregory XIV rescinded some of the harsher penalties of his predecessor and returned absolution to the local ordinary.2

Canon law does not determine the morality of abortion. It always assumes this and proceeds to determine how the Church, as a community, should deal with members who are guilty of abortion. The very fact that there have always been canonical penalties for abortion is a reflection of the Church’s position that abortion is a grave evil; for canon law never prescribes penalties for venial sins —prayers and good works have always been regarded as sufficient for their remission.

A second distinction separates official Church teaching from the expressed opinions of individual ecclesiastical writers. The Church may consider various opinions without adopting them as her official teaching. For example, in 1679 a decree of the Holy Office, under the authority of Innocent XI, condemned the positions of two important writers of that century: Thomas Sanchez and Joannis Marcus. Sanchez, a Jesuit theologian, held that abortion is lawful if the fetus is not yet animated when the intention is to prevent a girl, detected as pregnant, from being killed or defamed. Marcus, the Proto-physician of Bohemia, claimed that the fetus lacks a rational soul until birth.3

If Church teaching is to remain clear and consistent, it is a necessary to exclude confusing and contradictory opinions. At the same time, if Church teaching is to develop, it is necessary that there be research and debate. No one familiar with the development of the Church’s teaching on abortion throughout history could fail to recognize that it is indeed clear and consistent and has, in fact, developed in an atmosphere of meticulous research and lively debate.






A third important distinction divides essential Church teaching on abortion from the prevailing opinions of contemporary scientists. This distinction is of particular historical importance with regard to the question of the time of ensoulment. But this question, concerning the age or stage of the fetus when the rational soul is infused, was always extrinsic to the Church’s fundamental teaching that abortion is a grave evil. The ensoulment (or animation) question never deflected the Church from her contention that abortion is always a grave evil. Thus, scholar John A. Hardon, S.J. can write:

The exact time when the fetus becomes ‘animated’ has no practical significance as far as the morality of abortion is concerned. By any theory of ‘animation,’ abortion is gravely wrong. Why so? Because every direct abortion is a sin of murder by intent. It is, to say the least, probable that every developing fetus is a human being. To deliberately kill what is probably human is murder.4

John Connery, S. J., who spent several years carefully researching the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of abortion in history, comes to the same conclusion:

Whatever one would want to hold about the time of animation, or when the fetus became a human being in the strict sense of the term, abortion from the time of conception was considered wrong, and the time of animation was never looked upon as a moral dividing line between permissible and immoral abortion.5

Given these three important distinctions, it becomes easier to understand how the Church’s teaching on the immorality of abortion remained constant throughout its history. A constant teaching prevailed despite the fact that it was accompanied by a variety of extrinsic factors that did change: canonical penalties, the opinions of individual ecclesiastical writers, and the speculations of contemporary scientists. There is consensus on this point by all scholars who have studiously investigated the Church’s teaching on abortion. Some representative examples:

Germain Grisez writes:

The Roman Catholic tradition is marked by clear, consistent, comprehensive, and firm teaching against abortion in general.6

According to John Hardon, S. J.:

On the level of morality, Roman Catholicism has always held that the direct attack on an unborn fetus, at any time after conception, is a grave sin. The history of this teaching has been consistent and continuous, beginning with the earliest times and up to the present.7

Finally, in the words of scholar David Granfield:

To summarize, throughout its history, the Catholic Church has resolutely opposed the practice of abortion. From the first recorded condemnation in ecclesiastical writings in the Didache . . . to the most authoritative recent pronouncements . . . we find no authoritative deviation from the doctrine that abortion, at any stage, is a serious sin against God, the Creator of all human life.8

One of the key sources of the ensoulment or animation debate, which proved to have a long and controversial history, is a most improbable one—the Septuagint translation of a passage in Exodus. The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, made in the third century before Christ. Ptolemy II of Egypt is supposed to have brought seventy (or seventy-two) scholars to Alexandria, and in seventy (or seventy-two) days they are supposed to have completed the translation from Hebrew to Greek.

The passage in Exodus (21:22-25), an ordinance of Moses, prescribes the appropriate punishment for causing an accidental miscarriage. The Hebrew text clearly states that a man who causes a miscarriage must pay a fine if the woman does not die, but if the woman dies, he must be put to death according to the more general law: “Whoever strikes another so that he dies, must be put to death” (Exodus 21:12).






But an incorrect translation (intended or unintended) in the Septuagint version gives a totally different meaning to this Mosaic Law. The word “zurah” or “surah,” which means “form,” is erroneously used for the word “ason,” which means “harm.”9 Thus, the Septuagint version conveys the meaning of the fetus “not being further formed” rather than the woman “not being further harmed.” The penalty, therefore, was now understood to be a fine if the fetus was not formed, but death if the fetus was formed. Thus, through a mistranslation by Hebrew scholars who were conversant with Greek thought, the distinction between the “formed” and “unformed” or “pre-formed” fetus was given moral significance and Biblical authority. Hebrew thought had never divided man into body and soul. The notion that the fetus could be unformed was more compatible with contemporary Greek thought, which had already believed that human life begins at some stage in fetal development when “ensoulment” or “animation” takes place. Aristotle had identified this time of animation with observable movement and believed it differed according to sex:

In the case of male children the first movement usually occurs on the right-hand side of the womb and about the fortieth day, but if the child be a female then on the left-hand side and about the ninetieth day.10

This erroneous statement of fact, with its curious numerical pinpointing of the time of animation for male and female, was to have a long life in biological and legal circles. The authority of Aristotle, which was based on his genius for observation and systematic thought, influenced the uncritical acceptance of this error.

The Septuagint mistranslation of the Exodus passage had allowed Greek thinking in biological matters to gain a theological respectability it did not deserve. Nonetheless, this thinking, involving the distinction between the preformed and formed fetus, provided the basis for a lively debate that continued for several centuries. In one sense the Septuagint text provides a strong argument against abortion by implying that killing a fetus already formed—which would exact the death penalty for the assailant—is equivalent to homicide. At the same time, it provides a basis for the claim that aborting a fetus not yet formed is neither immoral not unlawful.

Tertullian (240 A.D.) is the first Christian to use the distinction between the pre-formed and formed fetus in the early Christian era. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), commenting on the Septuagint text from Exodus, states that the fetus does not belong to the human species until after forty days, that is, until it is formed. Theodoret (c. 393-457), Bishop of Cyrus (near Antioch), also following the Septuagint text, reasoned that God did not infuse the human soul until the body was formed. Accordingly, he taught that Moses had decreed that abortion of a formed fetus is homicide, but it is not homicide if the fetus is not formed.”11

Augustine, in his commentary on the Septuagint passage, argues that the Mosaic Law did not want to treat the accidental abortion of an unformed fetus as homicide. Nonetheless, Augustine speculates that in some way the unformed fetus might be animated, that is, human, even before it is fully formed or recognizably human.12 In another context, Augustine conjectures that all who have begun life will rise again, even those who have not been “formed.”

Early Christian writers consistently classified abortion as a grave evil even though they did not uniformly agree that all abortion (particularly of the unformed fetus) is equivalent to homicide. St. Basil the Great, however (374-5), found the distinction between formed and unformed too subtle to be morally relevant:

A woman who deliberately destroys a fetus is answerable for murder. And any fine distinction as to its being completely formed or unformed is not admissible among us.13

The notion that the fetus passed through distinct stages of formation was used as a basis for determining private penances during the following centuries. The Penitential of Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury (668-690), for example, exacts a penance of one year or less if the aborted fetus has not yet reached forty days of development, but three years after that time.14 The Old Irish Penitential (c. 800) required three and one-half years of penance if a conceptus is aborted, seven if it is “formed,” and fourteen if the “soul” has entered.15

The first time the distinction between the formed and unformed fetus became legally operative in Church history is in Gratian’s Decretum of 1140. This monumental work is the first fully systematic attempt to compile ecclesiastical legislation and earned Gratian the name “Father of the Science of Canon Law.” Basing his position on writers such as Ivo of Chartres, Augustine, and Jerome, Gratian states: “He is not a murderer who brings about abortion before the soul is in the body.”16 He did not, however, indicate when the fetus is formed.

The Decretals of Pope Gregory IX in 1234, which formally legislated for the whole Church, sustained Gratian’s distinction concerning the formed and unformed fetus, though in an ambiguous fashion. Commentators on the Decretals drew the conclusion that while all abortion is gravely sinful, the abortion of an unformed fetus should be considered as quasi-murder, that is, murder in some sense.






The distinction between the formed and unformed fetus (animated and unanimated), though recognized and accepted by many jurists, philosophers, and theologians, was used only for purposes of classification and distinguishing penalties. The first person in the Christian tradition to suggest that the distinction might be used as a basis to justify abortion in special cases is a Dominican, John of Naples (c. 1450). In an unpublished work, the Quodlibeta, John argues that a doctor may and should give the mother an abortifacient medicine if it is necessary to save her life, provided he is certain that the fetus is not animated. This opinion was brought to light by another Dominican, Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence.17 Discussion of this exception occupied the attention of theologians for the next three or four centuries, until theories of delayed animation—on which it was based—became obsolete.

The exception introduced for discussion by John of Naples met with considerable opposition, although it did claim some followers, particularly, the Jesuit theologian Thomas Sanchez. Sanchez’ argumentation to justify abortion in certain instances (and when it was determined that ensoulment had not yet taken place) was eventually condemned in 1679 by Pope Innocent XI. A French Jesuit, Theophile Raynaud (1582-1663) was the first author to argue in favor of aborting an animated fetus to save the mother’s life. Raynaud’s position was unique for his time and had no adherents for the next two centuries.

In the seventeenth century, two scientists—Thomas Fienus and Paolo Zacchia —who rejected the Aristotelian theory of delayed animation, made important historical contributions that led ultimately to the Church’s abandoning the speculation that there is such a thing as unanimated (or non-human) fetus.

Fienus, a professor of medicine at Louvain, published a biomedical treatise in 1620 on the formation of the fetus (De formatrice fetus liber). He concluded that the soul is infused on the third day. The Aristotelian notion of a succession of souls or “functions” of one soul (first vegetative, then sentient, and finally rational) made no sense to him. He developed nine lines of argumentation to support his thesis. In general, Fienus argues that the soul must be present at the beginning in order to organize the body. Moreover, in order to avoid an unnecessary multiplicity of explanatory factors, there must be one soul from the beginning that establishes the specific unity and individual continuity of the developing embryo.18

Concerning the Septuagint passage in Exodus, Fienus stated that it does not oblige one to believe that the unformed fetus has no rational soul, but only that it is an incomplete man. He also points out that the Latin (Vulgate) text, which is authoritative in the Church, makes no distinction between the formed and unformed fetus. St. Jerome had translated the Bible into Latin directly from Hebrew and therefore avoided the erroneous Septuagint version of the celebrated Exodus passage.

Zacchia, physician general of the Vatican State, published a book, also in the year 1620 (Quaestiones medico-legales) in which he argues a position remarkably similar to that of Fienus. He concludes that the rational soul is created and infused at conception. He also maintains that the development of the fetus is a continuum, rather than a series of distinct stages. Like Fienus, he reasons that the soul must always organize the body if development is to be determined from within.19






Concerning the Septuagint passage, Zacchia argues that it is commentary and not inspired text. The dichotomy between animated and non-animated fetuses, he contended, is maintained by lawyers because they want to distinguish the punishments for abortion. Besides, early pregnancy is an uncertain fact and the law takes the less strict possibility.

In 1644, Pope Innocent X conferred upon Paolo Zaccharia the title of “General Proto-Physician of the Entire Roman Ecclesiastical State.”

The rejection of the theory of delayed animation by these two scientists was met with considerable opposition. Nonetheless, the reasonableness of their arguments—which received added confirmation from the scientific research of Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood, Gassendi, DeGraaf, and others—gradually found acceptance. By the end of the seventeenth century important theologians such as Caramuel of Prague and the Spanish Jesuit, Juan Cardenas, found the distinction between the animated and unanimated fetus to be of no practical significance. Cardenas argued that abortion to save the life of the mother is impermissible if there is any reason to suspect the presence of a rational soul. But, Cardenas added, this suspicion is always present. It took another century, however, before immediate animation was generally accepted.

In 1869, Pope Pius IX officially removed the distinction between the animated and unanimated fetus from the penal legislation of the Church. This was, of course, disciplinary and in no way involved Church teaching on abortion.20 Henceforward, every direct killing of human life after conception would be treated in the same way, that is, the penalty of excommunication applied to all abortions.

The Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1917, states that all who procure abortion (“not excepting the mother”) incur an automatic excommunication.21 It further advises that all aborted fetuses, if delivered alive should certainly be baptized and if doubtfully alive, should be baptized conditionally.22 In addition, it directs the baptism of a child in its mother’s womb if there is no hope that it will be born in a normal manner. 23 These canons make it clear that the Church recognizes that the unborn child is a person at every stage of its development.








The earliest explicit teaching against abortion is found in the Didache (The Lord’s Instruction to the Gentiles through the Twelve Apostles). This work (c. 80) is the oldest source of ecclesiastical law and, after the New Testament, the first Christian catechism. The pertinent passage reads: “You shall not slay the child by abortion.”24

The second reference to abortion appears in a theological tract known as the Epistle of the pseudo-Barnabas, written about 138. This work was highly regarded for centuries, especially by the theologians of Alexandria. The author treats abortion as a corollary to the law of fraternal charity: “You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not slay the child by abortion.”25

Athenagoras, an Athenian philosopher, states in a letter to Marcus Aurelius (177) that: “All who use abortifacients are homicides and will account to God for their abortions as for the killing of men.”26 Clement of Alexandria, the “Father of Theologians,” wrote in 215 that abortions “destroy utterly the embryo and, with it, the love of man.”27

Two early Church councils — of Elvira in Granada, Spain (c. 305) and of Ancyra in Galatia, Asia Minor (314)—condemned abortion. These councils established a firm historical precedent on the matter of abortion which later councils—the Council of Chalcedon (451) and Consillium Quinisextum (692)—ratified and strengthened. During the early period of Christianity many important writers clearly and emphatically condemned abortion as a grave evil. Among these writers are Hippolytus (235), Cyprian (258), St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (375), St. Jerome (d. 420), St. Augustine (d. 430), Caesarius, Bishop of Arles (d. 543), and St. Martin of Braga (580). The Christian respect for all human life during the early Christian era, exemplified in part by its opposition to abortion, contrasted markedly with the pagan world in which abortion and infanticide were common practices. This Christian attitude toward the unborn was all the more striking since it resisted the prevailing Stoic view that associated life with breath, holding that the fetus was not alive until it could breathe, and because it maintained its opposition to all abortion despite Septuagint teaching and Aristotelian thinking, both of which made distinctions between the formed and unformed fetus.






In summarizing the teaching and historical contribution of the early Church on the subject of abortion, John Noonan, Jr. writes:

The monks had transmitted the apostolic and patristic prohibition of abortion. The canon law set it out as a universal requirement of Christian behavior. The theologians explored the relation of the law to the theory of ensoulment, but on one basis or another condemned abortion at any point in the existence of the fetus. The prohibition was still absolute.28

The early period of Christianity established a firm and consistent opposition to abortion. Later periods were faithful to this tradition despite continuing attempts on the part of various ecclesiastical writers to find an exception to the church’s condemnation of direct abortion in every instance. The Church did not always regard all abortion as simple homicide, however, although it regarded the abortion of an unformed or unanimated fetus (if there were such a thing) as anticipated homicide or homicide by intent because it always involved the destruction of a future human being. The distinctions between true homicide and quasi-homicide, and formed and unformed fetus had practical significance only with respect to legal classification and the grading of penances relative to the reconciliation of sinners.

The pronouncements by modern popes on the subject of abortion omit these obsolete distinctions. Hence, their opposition to abortion may appear more definitive and unqualified than statements made by earlier popes. Nonetheless, the Church’s moral teaching that abortion is always a grave evil has remained intact throughout history.

One of the reasons cited for imposing a more severe penalty on late term abortions is that it represents a greater danger to the woman. But the danger to the woman of early abortion was also noted. Juan de Lugo, a Spanish Jesuit whom Alphonsus Liguori called the greatest moralist after Thomas Aquinas, drew attention to the fact that an abortion even in the earliest period of pregnancy is more dangerous to the woman than carrying the pregnancy to term. This was unarguably true given the state of medicine in the year 1642 when de Lugo wrote Justice and Right, a work that earned him his cardinal’s hat.

The Church was also, and at all times, concerned about the woman’s spiritual welfare. Since it regarded abortion as a grave sin, it believed that it posed a serious danger to the woman’s immortal soul. Naturally, it wanted to discourage women from having an abortion since it regarded this violation of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as a form of spiritual suicide.







In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas dealt with the question of whether it is permissible to section the uterus of a pregnant woman if this is the only way to baptize the fetus that is in danger of dying. The argument in favor of doing this is that the eternal life of the fetus is more important than the temporal life of its mother. Aquinas refuses to allow this and quotes St. Paul (Rom. 3:8) who says: “We should not do evil that there may come good.” It is an impermissible evil, according to Aquinas, to impose direct physical harm on a pregnant woman (in all probability causing her death) even when the good that is intended—the eternal salvation of the fetus—might be construed in a particularly theological sense to be a greater good than continuing the temporal life of the mother.29 Aquinas does not believe that an unbaptized fetus is necessarily deprived of salvation; but the logic of his argument reveals his conviction that even if the fetus stood to suffer a greater loss than the loss of its mother’s temporal life, the mother’s right to be protected from assault remains inviolable.

The three-century theological discussion between 1450-1750 centered on whether a woman ever had a right to abort. The factor that sustained the discussion was a genuine and abiding concern that, in certain circumstances, continued pregnancy would endanger a woman’s health, marriage, or reputation. No exception was found that would permit direct abortion, however, because no exception could be found that did not logically extend to other exceptions that were not prudent to make or failed to uphold the principle that all innocent human life warrants equal protection. But the debate continued in an effort to protect the pregnant woman as much as possible without violating more general principles that protected everyone.

The pregnant woman had a right to life and a right to be protected from assault. This was never questioned. But these rights implied other rights, particularly, a right to medical treatment in the event of illness. An important distinction was introduced in the sixteenth century by Antonius de Corduba, a Franciscan theologian, between medicine for the health of the mother (de se salutifera) and medicine for what would directly cause the death of the fetus (de se mortifera). Corduba reasoned that since the mother has a greater or prior right to life (ius potius), she has a right to therapeutic treatment even if that treatment results in the accidental death of the fetus.30

Corduba’s contributions concerning the pregnant woman’s right to therapeutic treatment united with those of many other writers. Eventually a rationale was developed which permitted indirect abortion in the interest of the mother’s health. Pope Pius XII added his approval to this rationale when he said:

Deliberately we have always used the expression ‘direct attempt on the life of an innocent person,’ ‘direct killing.’ Because if, for example, the saving of the life of the future mother, independently of her pregnant condition, should urgently require a surgical act or other therapeutic treatment which would have as an accessory consequence, in no way desired or intended, but inevitable, the death of the fetus, such an act could no longer be called a direct attempt on an innocent life. Under these conditions the operation can be lawful, like other similar medical interventions—granted always that a good of high worth is concerned, such as life, and that it is not possible to postpone the operation until after the birth of the child, nor to have recourse to other efficacious remedies.31

Thus, it is morally permissible to remove the fallopian tube in the instance of an ectopic pregnancy or to remove a cancerous uterus since the primary purpose of these therapeutic procedures is to save the life of the mother, not to destroy the fetus, a consequence that happens indirectly or accidentally. The acceptance of indirect abortion, as Noonan remarks, indicates that Church teaching is something less than an “absolute valuation of fetal life.”32

The Church has always upheld the principle that all innocent human life is deserving of protection. In trying to find exceptions to the abortion prohibition in the interest of providing better care for the pregnant woman, the Church never treated one form of human life as more important than another. Pope Pius XII makes this point clear when he states:

Never and in no case has the Church taught that the life of the child must be preferred to that of the mother. It is erroneous to put the question with this alternative: either the life of the child or that of the mother. No, neither the life of the mother nor that of the child can be subjected to an act of direct suppression. In the one case as in the other, there can be but one obligation: to make every effort to save the lives of both, of the mother and the child.33

Although the Church’s prohibition of all direct abortion has been clear and consistent throughout history, its overall treatment of abortion is highly comprehensive and extraordinarily complex owing to the many subtleties involved in its theological and philosophical discussions together with the intricate secondary issues of animation, formation, and the grading of penalties. This fact may help to explain why so many contemporary writers are either ignorant or confused about what the Church has actually taught on the subject of abortion. At the same time, there can be little doubt that in some instances the reason for misrepresenting Church teaching is rooted in anti-Catholic prejudice. Roger Wertheimer, himself an advocate of abortion, is as correct as he is candid when he declares:

I think it undeniable that some of the liberals’ bungling can be dismissed as the unseemly sputterings and stutterings of a transparently camouflaged anti-Catholic bias…34

In Chandrasekhar’s Abortion in a Crowded World, the presence of an anti-Catholic bias is both obvious and disturbing. Catholic doctrine on abortion is “rigid, irrational, and cast-iron”;35 it is also “changeless and monolithic.”36 In relation to the plight of modern man in an “overpopulated” world, the Church, in opposing abortion, is guilty of “sickly sentimentalism” and “foolish wickedness.”37







Chandrasekhar does not understand the meaning and limitation of law. A law should be just. And if it is just, it should not change to become unjust simply to avoid the criticism of being “rigid.” But inasmuch as it is just, it is not compassionate. Justice is supposed to be nonpartisan; it is not supposed to feel differently toward one than toward another. Justice is “blind.” Moreover, only human beings, not laws, are capable of expressing compassion. It is the combination of just laws and compassionate people that is needed. If people lack compassion it is folly to expect that compassion can be expressed by the law. The Catholic law, which forbids abortion, is an expression of a higher law, which obliges everyone to love their neighbor without prejudice.

Protestant theologian Harold O. J. Brown, in his book Death Before Birth, contends that the early Christian church “consistently taught” that “abortion is permissible” (though an evil) to “save the mother’s life. “38 The only reference he offers to support this historically incorrect claim is from Tertullian, a Christian heretic of the third century. It is not at all clear that even Tertullian approved abortion under these circumstances. “But even if Tertullian were speaking with approval of the procedure,” writes John Connery, “It would be the only explicit approval of an exception to the condemnation of abortion to be found in the first millennium.”39

Wendell Watters, a Canadian psychiatrist, makes the unsupported claim that prior to 1869 and except for three years during the reign of Sixtus V (1588-1591), “The Church had officially accepted the theory of delayed animation for 500 years.”40 This, of course, is completely untrue. The Church had never at any time “officially” accepted the theory of delayed animation. It did, however, mitigate punishment if the abortion was of an unanimated fetus. But it never taught that there was such a thing as an unanimated fetus; it gave the benefit of the doubt to the penitent that this might be the case in an early abortion. The only official Church teaching on the subject of animation is that of Pope Innocent XI which condemned the position that ensoulment took place at birth.41

Whether the fetus ever was unanimated, when it might have been animated, and how such a diagnosis might be made were all speculative questions that were wholly extrinsic to the fundamental teaching that abortion was wrong at anytime. In fact, there never existed an empirical method by which a judgment could be made that the fetus is indeed “not animate.”

On the basis of this misunderstanding, Watters then concludes that the elimination of the distinction between the animated and unanimated fetus in 1869 “was a pivotal one in the history of abortion.” Prior to 1869, according to Watters, “Abortion before ensoulment was tolerated by the Catholic Church.”42 Watters also fails to recognize the difference between opposing abortion because it is homicide and opposing it because it is homicide by intent. He illogically assumes that if the Church, at certain times and in certain circumstances, regarded abortion as less than homicide it probably “tolerated” or even “sanctioned” abortion. This is roughly equivalent to arguing that it must be all right to kill a privately owned racehorse because such an act does not constitute homicide. At any rate, Watters insists that the real reason the Church opposed abortion was not moral or religious but political.”43

Watters’ book, promoted as one destined to become the “definitive book about abortion,” has the appearance of scholarship. This makes it all the more dangerous because uncritical reviewers repeat as Gospel the distortions Watters claims to be facts. Thus, one reviewer can blithely announce in a woman’s magazine, concerning Watters’ treatment of Church history:

Readers may be surprised to discover that the Catholic Church’s position on abortion has varied widely over the years. Until just over 100 years ago, the Vatican’s attitude towards abortion was relatively tolerant.”44

Eugene C. Bianchi, a former Catholic priest, expresses the complaint that: “Other voices need to be heard from the Catholic tradition that argue for openings on the yes side of the abortion issue.”45 Bianchi seems unaware of Church history on the subject in which every conceivable rationale for justifying abortion was brought forward, heard, and thoroughly scrutinized before being dismissed. But his “yes” to abortion is rhetoric at its emptiest. The Catholic tradition is in continuity with the Jewish tradition on the matter of saying “yes,” but a saying “yes” not to death but to life. The Old Testament is a continuous affirmation of the goodness of life. A striking example of this attitude occurs in Deuteronomy. After summarizing the entire code, the lawgiver calls attention to the fundamental moral choice that must be made: “See, today I set before you life and prosperity, death and disaster.”46 To love and serve God is to choose life; to reject God and depart from him is to choose death.

Choose life, then, so that you and your descendents may live, in the love of Yahweh your God, obeying his voice, clinging to him; for in this your life consists, and on this depends your long stay in the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers . . .47

Books, reviews, magazines, pro-abortion leaflets, and newspapers commonly misrepresent the Church’s teaching on abortion. Newspapers are especially notorious in this regard. A typical example of newspaper distortion is the following:

Abortion was only declared illegal and condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in the 1800’s; the Catholic church condoned abortion until the fetus “quickened,” meaning the time when a pregnant woman first feels the unborn child moving.48

Nor are Catholics excepted from gross misrepresentations of Church teaching. One author, who identifies himself as a Catholic, has written a book, which purports to tell the facts about matters pertaining to human sexuality. In this rather lengthy work, he summarizes the Catholic teaching on abortion in the following way:

Catholicism. Although Catholic teaching on abortion has shifted through the centuries, the current position is clear: abortion is murder. This position has been fixed since 1869, when Pope Pius IX reinstituted the doctrine that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception; from that moment on, the fetus is therefore a person. Furthermore, because the fetus has a soul it must be baptized in order to remove original sin. Catholics therefore believe that not only is abortion murder, but it also condemns the unborn person to hell.49

This passage, stated gratuitously with no supporting references, is particularly remarkable because it contains nine major errors in the space of four sentences, and fails to make a single correct point concerning the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion. It provides an unusually concentrated example of academic incompetence, demonstrating in embarrassing detail the author’s poor diction, faulty logic, bad theology, and ignorance of history.

Catholic teaching, of course, has not “shifted” through the centuries. Although the word “murder” has been used by some ecclesiastical writers, the Church does not identify abortion with murder. “Murder” is a legal term and involves a judgment about the disposition, knowledge, and intention of the alleged murderer. Murder and homicide (the killing of a human being) are not the same thing. Immediate animation is not a doctrine, and Pope Pius IX did not “reinstate” any doctrine concerning abortion in 1869.






The assertion that the fetus must be baptized in order to remove original sin is theologically indefensible. Aquinas maintains that children in the womb can “be subject to the action of God, in Whose sight they live, so as, by a kind of privilege, to receive the grace of sanctification; as was the case with those who were sanctified in the womb.”50 The most celebrated instance of this form of sanctification is John the Baptist who, as a six-month-old fetus in the womb of Elizabeth, “leapt for joy” at the salutation of Mary who was “with child of the Holy Spirit.”51 Furthermore, the Church teaches that, in addition to water, there is baptism by blood and desire.

There is no clear doctrine of the Church concerning what happens to unbaptized infants after they die. Since the twelfth century, the opinion of the majority of theologians has been that these unbaptized infants, because they are innocent of any actual sin, are immune from all pain of sense. This was taught by St. Thomas Aquinas, Scotus, St. Bonaventure, Peter Lombard and others, and is now the common teaching in the Church. St. Thomas says: “Although unbaptized infants are separated from God as far as glory is concerned, yet they are not separated from Him entirely. Rather are they joined to Him by a participation of natural goods; and so they may even rejoice in Him by natural consideration and love.”52 Again, he says: “They will rejoice in this, that they will share largely in the divine goodness and in natural perfections.”53

The claim that Catholics believe abortion condemns the unborn to Hell is one that is baseless and invidious. There is not a shred of evidence that the Church has ever taught this or that Catholics do indeed believe it.

The so called “information explosion,” which is greatly facilitated by the mass media and its pressing day-to-day needs, has created a wide gap between information and scholarship. Although there is more print available to the general public today than ever before, people have less time and, perhaps more importantly, less inclination to discuss, digest, criticize, and challenge what they read. The gross misrepresentations that frequently appear on so important a matter as the Church’s teaching on abortion should inspire a renewed interest in scholarship and, one may hope, a renaissance in critical thinking.




1 Roger J. Huser, The Crime of Abortion in Canon Law (Washington D.C.: Catholic Univ. Press, 1942). ‘The Church has always held in regard to the morality of abortion that it is a serious sin to destroy a foetus at any stage of development. However, as a. juridical norm in the determination of penalties against abortion, the Church at various times did accept the distinction between a formed and a non-formed, an animated and a nonanimated foetus.” Preliminary Note.

2 Lucius Farraris, Bibliotheca iuridica moralis theologica (Roma: 1885) I, 36-38.

3 Denzinger-Schoenmetzer, Enchiridion symbolorum (Rome: Herder, 1965), 2134-2135.

4 John A. Hardon, S. J., “A Catholic View,” The Human Life Review, Fall 1975, p. 46.

5 John Connery, S. J., Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective (Chicago: Loyola Univ. Press, 1977), p. 304.

6 Germain Grisez, Abortion: the Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments (New York: Corpus Books, 1970), p. 165.

7 Hardon, p. 93.

8 David Granfield, The Abortion Decision (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971), p. 66.

9 Ibid., p. 44. It is likely that the Septuagint translators deliberately introduced a variant translation because it was more in agreement with current practice in their own community or with their own conception of justice. See Immanuel Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1959). See also Sidney Jellicoe, The Septuagint and Modern Study (London: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1968).

10 Aristotle, “History of Animals,” The Works of Aristotle, Vol. II (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), Bk. 7, Ch. 3, 583b, p. 109. Felinus Sandaeus of Ferrara (d. 1503) calculated that animation took place on the fortieth day for the female and on the eightieth day for the male fetus.

11 Migne, “Quaestiones in Eoxdum,” Patrologia Graeca, 48, 80:271-74.

12 Augustine, “Quaestionum in Heptateuchum,” ii, 80; Patrologia Latina, XXXIV, 626.

13 St. Basil the Great, “Three Canonical Letters,” Loeb Classical Library, III, 20-23.

14 Medieval Handbooks of Penance, transl. J.T. McNeill and Helena Gamer (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1938), p. 197.

15 Ibid., p. 166.

16 Gratian, Concordia discordantium canonum, Decretum, Ad. c8, C. XXXII, q. 2.

17 See Connery, pp. 114-116. Some authors have questioned whether John of Naples really advocated induced abortion or merely allowed treatment aimed at curing some maternal ailment.

18 Thomas Fienus (Feynes), De formatrice fetus liber (Antwerp: 1620), pp. 157-181.

19 Paolo Zacchia, Quaestiones medico-legales (Lyons: 1701), lib. 6, tit. 1, qu. 7, 16.

20 Codicis Iuris Canonici Fontes, 9 vols. (Rome, 1923-39), n. 552.

21 Canon 2350, paragraph 1.

22 Canon 747.

23 Canon 746.

24 Didache, II, 2, tr. J.A. Kleist, S.J., Ancient Christian Writers, 6 (Westminster, 1948), 16.

25 Epistle of Barnabas, II, 19.

26 Legatio pro Christianis, c. 35.

27 Octavius, c 30, nn. 2-3.

28 John T. Noonan, Jr., “Abortion in the Catholic Church: A Summary History,” Natural Law Forum, 12 (1967), p. 104.

29 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, q. 68, a. 11, ad. 3.

30 Antoninus de Corduba, Quaestionarium theologicum, q. 38, dub. 3 (Venice, 1604).

31 Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 43 (1951), p. 855.

32 Noonan, p. 125.

33 Acta Aposlolicae Sedis, p. 43. Pope Pius XI had said in Casti Conubii that, “The lives of both [the woman and her unborn child] are equally sacred and no one, not even public authority can ever have the right to destroy them.”

34 Roger Wertheimer, “Understanding the Abortion Argument,” The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion, ed. Cohen, Nagel & Scanlon (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Univ. Press, 1974), p. 29, f.n. 6.

35 S. Chandrasekhar, Abortion in a Crowded World (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1974), p. 26.

36 Ibid., p. 36.

37 Ibid., p. 37.

38 Harold O.J. Brown, Death Before Birth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1977), p. 22.

39 Connery, p. 42.

40 Wendell W. Watters, Compulsory Pregnancy: The Truth About Abortion (Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1976), p. 90.

41 See Connery, p. 308: “The only opinion the Church has ever condemned was that which identified animation with the time of birth. It has never taught immediate animation.”

42 Watters, pp. 90-1.

43 Watters, pp. 92-3.

44 Penney Kome, “Woman’s Place,” Homemaker’s Magazine, 1976.

45 Eugene C. Bianchi, “Compassion is Needed,” National Catholic Reporter, June 8, 1973.

46 Deuteronomy 30:15.

47 Deut. 30:19-20.

48 Ann Lukits, “The Agony of Abortion,” Kingston, Ont. Whig Standard, Sat. Sept. 24, 1983, p. 1.

49 Michael Carrera, Sex: The Facts, The Acts, and Your Feelings (New York: Crown, 1981), p. 290.

50 ST. III, q. 68, a. 11, ad. 1.

51 Luke, Chap. I.

52 St. Thomas Aquinas, In II Sent., dist. XXXIII, Q. ii, a. 5.

53 Ibid. a. 2.




“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27) Man occupies a unique place in creation:



Dr. Donald DeMarco is an associate professor of philosophy at St. Jerome’s College at the University of Waterloo. He studied theology at the Gregorian University in Rome and earned his Ph.D. at St. John’s University in New York. He is the author of Abortion in Perspective, Sex and the Illusion of Freedom, and Today’s Family in Crisis. His most recent book is The Anesthetic Society (Christendom, 1982). Born in Massachusetts, he resides now with his wife and five children in Kitchener, Ontario. He is a frequent contributor to HPR.