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The Roman Catholic Church and Abortion

Closely related to its biblical and traditional hatred of women and sex is the position of the Roman Catholic Church on abortion and contraception. We will be looking at the issue of contraception later. In this section we will look at its opposition to abortion which has brought not just suffering but death to many Catholic and non-Catholic women.

Abortion: The Multiple Positions of Early Christianity

The Church's anti-abortion crusade is spear-headed by its "Right to Life" [a] movement. While there is nothing in the Bible that relates directly to abortion, these people claim that the Biblical injunction "Thou Shalt Not Kill" applies equally to abortion. [b]

This attitude is not new. We find that in early Christian writings some voices were already raised against abortion. Thus the early second century epistle of Barnabas commanded:

Barnabas 19:5
You shall not kill the fetus either by abortion or the newborn.

Tertullian (c160-c225) wrote in 198 that "we are not permitted ... to destroy the fetus in the womb." [1]

However, these anti-abortion views were by no means universal. Based partly on the teachings of Aristotle and partly on the Bible, the traditional Christian view was that the fetus was not immediately infused with a soul upon conception: the male fetus acquired a soul forty days after conception, while the female fetus only acquired it eighty days after conception. Thus, St. Augustine (354-450) argued that there could be no talk of murder when the fetus has yet to acquire a soul. [2] Based on Augustine's argument, the traditional position was generally that which stipulates abortion of the fetus within eighty days after conception as "permissible", or exempted from punishment.

In 1588, Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590), suspended this traditional ruling, and in his bull Effraenatam threatened anyone who practiced abortion, even within the eighty day period, with excommunication and the death penalty. His successor, Pope Gregory XIV (1535-1591), revoked Sixtus ruling in 1591 and reverted to the traditional ruling which allows abortion within eighty days of conception. [3]

The Augustinian idea of infusion of the soul on the fortieth and eightieth day for male and female respectively was never held as a universal truth by everyone in the Church. As a result of this uncertainty in the time of infusion, in 1869 Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) decided to forbid abortion from the moment of conception on the grounds of "prudence." This has been the official Catholic position down to the twentieth century: that abortion could be murder.

The Second Vatican Council (1965) however carried this issue further and condemned abortion unconditionally as an "unspeakable crime." [4]

Thus we can see that the position of the Roman Catholic Church evolved from one of initial uncertainty through one of "prudence" to a final absolutist "abortion is murder".

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The Absolutist Position of the Roman Catholic Church

Most lay Catholics cannot understand why anyone would consider such a position harmful. "After all", they may asked, "isn't anti-abortion the more prudent path to take?" That abortion should not be used as the preferred method for birth control, very few people would disagree - although most atheists do not consider abortion to be the moral equivalent of murder. But that is not the position of the Roman Catholic Church. It's position is that all abortions, done for whatever reason, and regardless of the stage of the pregnancy, is a transgression against God and his Church. For instance in cases where the woman has been raped and got pregnant as a result, or in cases of incest or even in extreme cases where the woman's life is in danger and can only be saved by terminating the pregnancy, the church's position is still an adamant "No!".

Two examples from the nineteenth century should suffice to show the immorality of such a stance. In 1865, a doctor inquired to the church on its position to a method of abortion. The method involved removing a fetus during early pregnancy without killing it. The fetus being premature, of course, will not survive. However, if the abortion is not performed, both the mother and the fetus will die. The response from Rome was a heartless, "No."

Another example of this happened in 1884 when Cardinal Caverot of Lyons asked Rome for clarification on the Church's position with regard to a surgical operation known as craniotomy. This operation, which involves dismembering the fetus' skull, is used to save the mother's life, for without it both the mother and fetus would perish. One would consider that it would clearly be better to save one life than to allow both to die. But the Vatican thought otherwise. It's answer was a firm "No" to craniotomy. [5]

It is such an attitude from the church that makes a mockery of the term "right to life." They would rather let both mother and child die then to give the mother a chance to live. This decision was reinforced by the papal encyclical Casti Conubii (1930) which gives the following quasi-moral reason for the rejection of the operations described above:

What could ever be a sufficient reason to justify the direct killing of an innocent being? ... On the contrary he who aims at encompassing the death of one or the other, under the pretence of taking therapeutic measures, or out of a falsely understood compassion, would prove himself unworthy of the noble name and reputation of a physician. [6]

The Roman Catholic Church is in a fine position to make such a speech. Have the Pope forgotten about all the people the church killed in the Crusades, the Inquisition and the witch hunts? How many innocent Albigensians were killed by the Catholic forces during the Albigensian Crusade? The Church does not condemn wars and throughout its history has supported "just" wars: but doesn't innocent people get killed in wars as well?

In 1951, Pope Pius XII (1876-1958), the pope who did not have the moral courage to speak out against the atrocities he knew the Nazis were committing against the Jews in Germany, had the audacity to reiterate the message of Casti Connubii; namely that a physician or midwife who tries to save the mother's life by abortion was unworthy of their profession. [7]

The Church is adamant on ensuring that its teachings on abortion reaches the laity. Thus we find the excerpt below from a book, Moral Problems in Hospital Practice (1947), with the official Catholic imprimatur, presenting the issue on abortion in a question and answer form:

Q If it is morally certain that a pregnant mother and her unborn child will both die, if the pregnancy is allowed to take its course, but at the same time, the attending physician is morally certain that he can save the mother's life by removing the inviable fetus, is it lawful for him to do so?
A.No, it is not. Such a removal of the fetus would be direct abortion. [8]

The Catholic moral theologian, Bernhard Haring wrote a book Das Gesetz Christi (1967) in which he tried to defend the papal pronouncements on abortion from 1884 to 1951. He asserted that these pronouncements were in reality "a salutary admonition to the medical profession to develop its practice better." [9] In elaborating this idea, that abortion is not allowed under any circumstance, the Catholic priest David Granfield provides the chilling ruling of the church: "Two natural deaths are a lesser evil than one murder."[10] As de Rosa commented in his book Vicars of Christ:

Because mother and child have an equal right to life, they must both die. If any statement revealed the ethical bankruptcy of a biological morality, this is it. [11]

In cases where only one, either mother or child, can be saved, the Church again, against all human reason and compassion, decreed that it is the child that takes precedence. The reason is not so much to save a life but, due to the Augustinian teaching that unbaptized babies will suffer eternal damnation, simply to allow the baby to be baptized. In fact, according to Bernhard Haring, the mother is obliged to undergo such operations (such as caesarean section, severing the pelvic bone of the interpubic disk) to secure the child's life to allow its baptism. There is, of course, no excluding the possibility that the mother will die due to the operation. Haring has, unwittingly, provided an answer to Pope Pius XI's rhetorical question: What could ever be a sufficient reason to justify the direct killing of a human being? His answer: to provide baptism for the newborn. For he asserted in his book that a "maternally right thinking" mother should risk her life to enable the baby's baptism. [12]

This position has not changed in recent years, in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993) Pope John Paul II stressed that abortion is intrinsically evil and no exceptions are to be made to allow for it.[13]

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II seems to be claiming infallibility in his absolute pronouncement against all forms of abortion for whatever reason:

In effect, the absolute inviolability of innocent human life is a moral truth clearly taught by Sacred Scripture, constantly upheld in the Church's Tradition and consistently proposed by her Magisterium. This consistent teaching is the evident result of that "supernatural sense of the faith" which, inspired and sustained by the Holy Spirit, safeguards the People of God from error when "it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals".
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral.
The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end. It is in fact a grave act of disobedience to the moral law, and indeed to God himself, the author and guarantor of that law; it contradicts the fundamental virtues of justice and charity. "Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo... Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action".[14]

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Ectopic Pregnancy and the Doctrine of "Double Effect"

Having mentioned above that the Catholic position is absolutist - abortion is murder and it is not allowed under any circumstances - it may surprise our readers to know that some, albeit extremely restricted, cases where abortions are allowed. To get out of this obvious inconsistency - in having an absolutist position with exceptions - Catholic moral theologians had had to come up with a masterpiece of theological sophistry - again not without inflicting additional harm on women.

This is how the sophistry is presented in Paragraph 47 of Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,Fourth Edition (2001):

47. Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child

One example where "indirect" abortions are allowed is that ectopic pregnancies. "Ectopic pregnancies" or extra uterine pregnancies are pregnancies where the fetus did not reach the uterus in time and gets embedded within the Fallopian Tube instead. Now extra uterine pregnancies are not viable pregnancies and directly threatens the mother's life. In the very next paragraph of the same directive it is written:

48. In the case of extra uterine pregnancies no intervention is morally licit which constitutes a direct abortion.

Note the phrase "direct abortion" used above. In order to allow abortions in ectopic pregnancy and still maintain the fiction of its absolutist position, Catholic moral theologians have come up with the doctrine of double effect. The basis of this doctrine is that if a positive action (the main "directly intended" action) which does not violate an absolute moral rule, has an unintended, secondary effect which may have some negative consequences, the action is permissible. [15]

Let us see how this doctrine is applied to the case of ectopic pregnancy. Two methods are available which would allow for the removal of the fetus without any long term damage to the woman's reproductive system. The first method is the use of the drug Methotrexate (MTX). MTX, if used sufficiently early during the pregnancy, can disrupt the growth of the fetus causing a spontaneous abortion. If the case is already serious, with hemorrhaging, the surgical method known as salpingostomy allows for the removal of the fetus without removing the fallopian tube. [16] Both methods do not significantly reduce the woman's chances of getting pregnant in the future. However in these cases, according to the merciful minds of Catholic moral theologians, the directly intended action would be the removal of the fetus; and that would constitute, an abortion, hence they are not allowed.

The Catholic Church only allows the woman's life to be saved if the fallopian tube is also removed (salpingectomy) with the fetus! The explanation of course is based on the doctrine of double effect. In the case of salpingectomy, it is considered that the main intent is to safe the life of the mother (hence the removal of the fallopian tube), while the removal of the fetus - which "happens" to be in the fallopian tube that is removed - is considered the unintended secondary effect. [17] Thus the doctrine calls for the mutilation of the woman, even when it is avoidable, before her life can be saved.

Yet all this sophistry and needless mutilation of persons are based on a doctrine recognized by many non-Catholic bioethicists and philosophers to be fallacious. [18] As the Princeton bioethicist, Peter Singer, noted:

[T]he distinction between directly intended effect and side-effect is a contrived one. We cannot avoid responsibility simply by directing our intention to one effect rather than another. If we foresee both effects, we must take responsibility for the foreseen effects of what we do. [19]
[Emphasis added-PT]

Singer then gave an example to show the ludicrousness of this doctrine. Let us say that a factory, in financial trouble, decides to dump its chemical waste into a nearby river; causing much damage to the ecosystem and perhaps some deaths of residents nearby. Upon being approached by the authorities, the plant manager defended himself with the doctrine of double effect. "That was just a secondary effect" he insisted. "My main intentions are pure and morally and economically defensible. The main action, using the limited available funds to enhance production rather than in environmental protection, was to keep our costs down so that we can ensure that our workers, who have families to feed (!), continue to be employed. Furthermore the low cost of our production is translated into cheaper products in the market, which keeps down the costs of living of those who require them."

It is obvious that our fictitious plant manager is only engaging in sophistry to get himself out of trouble. Yet his use of the double effect doctrine is impeccable: it was not his intention to pollute the river, it was his intention to save the jobs of his workers and to reduce the cost of living of his customers. This simple example makes it clear why the doctrine of double effect is fallacious : we must take into account all the consequences of our actions. We make decisions based on judging whether the bad effects is outweighed by the gains. [20] In the case of the factory, obviously the damage to the environment and the resultant deaths outweigh the positive effects. Similarly in the case of ectopic pregnancy, what the church tries to hide is this moral fact: the life of the mother takes precedence over the life of the fetus!

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Theological Sophistry in Action

That the anti-abortion stance of the Catholic Church has led to suffering of real persons instead of an artificial theological construct can be seen from a few examples.

A clear and sad example of just how immoral the Catholic Church's position on abortion is can be seen in a recent case in Nicaragua. In 2002, a nine year old Nicaraguan girl, called "Rosa" to protect her identity, was raped and became pregnant as a result. She also contracted a couple of sexually transmitted diseases from this assault.

Nicaragua, a predominantly Catholic country where the Church holds considerable influence, has laws allowing abortion only when the pregnant woman's (or the fetus') life is "immediately threatened". Her parents applied for abortion on these grounds. A panel of three doctors was set up and found that Rosa's life was threatened regardless of whether she were to have an abortion or take the pregnancy to full term. Her parents used that rather ambiguous finding to secure her an abortion at a private clinic. The girl is now fine and is resting at an undisclosed location.

The position of the Catholic Church was predictable, it excommunicated the parents and the three doctors; calling the "crime" committed by the parents no different from terrorist suicide bombings! No sign of compassion at all is shown by the Church for the family undergoing the trauma of rape, child pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. It only reversed its decision on excommunication when 26,000 Catholics signed a petition which was delivered to the Pope's representative in Spain.

In all this the Roman Catholic Church seemed less concerned with apprehending and punishing the actual perpetrator. Although a 20 year old Costa Rican suspect had been apprehended for the crime, the church's main concern continues to be in "getting" the parents and the doctors who helped the little girl through this ordeal. But perhaps abusing little children is not considered such a big crime by the Catholic Church! [21]

It is important to remember that the prohibition against abortion at all cost impacts even non-Catholics. Catholic run hospitals are governed by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (Fourth Edition, 2001) which consists of 72 guidelines for provision of health care issued by the National Conference of Bishop in the US. In it the stipulation against abortion, in guideline no.45, is very clear:

45. Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted. Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion, which, in its moral context, includes the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo. Catholic health care institutions are not to provide abortion services, even based upon the principle of material cooperation. In this context, Catholic health care institutions need to be concerned about the danger of scandal in any association with abortion providers.

This prohibition is felt most in small towns where the only medical services available is from a Catholic run hospital. One example cited in the article "Catholic Doctrine and Your Health" in shows how harmful this is:

[N]ote the prohibition on "material cooperation" - this means that not only is the hospital prohibited from actually providing an abortion, but it cannot aid abortions in any way. This includes even providing transportation for women to another institution which might provide abortions.

This is not an insignificant restriction. Dr. Wayne Goldner, an obstetrician/gynecologist in Manchester, New Hampshire, received a 35-year-old patient in May, 1998, whose 14-week-old pregnancy was doomed. Her water had broken prematurely and he decided that she required an emergency abortion in order to avoid developing a server uterine infection.

Unfortunately, administrators at his non-sectarian hospital refused because they thought it would violate the Directives put into place after a recent merger - this, despite the fact that Goldner had been assured that policies on abortion and other reproductive services would remain unchanged.

The woman was too poor to get herself anyplace else and the hospital certainly wouldn't provide "material cooperation" to get her to a place where she could be helped. So, Dr. Goldner paid for a cab out of his own pocket so she could be admitted to another hospital eighty miles away.

Goldner's efforts to fight the new polices have caused serious personal repercussions. He has been picketed, he has lost his teaching position, and his daughter's school has received a bomb threat. Why? Simply because he wishes to offer legal reproductive services in his community. [22]

It must be mentioned that worldwide more than half a million women die annually from pregnancy related causes. [23] Sometimes large numbers like these do not have the intended effect as it simply numbs us. To get an idea of the enormous number of deaths it is important to put this in perspective. It is four to five times more then the number that perished during the boxing day (2004) tsunami in south and southeast Asia (which has been estimated at around 160,000). It amount to about one death per minute every day of the year. Most of these are surely preventable with available contraception, safe abortions and better pregnancy-related health care. The Roman Catholic Church, through its anti-contraceptive and anti-abortion stance and its unholy alliance with the fundamentalist administration of George W. Bush, must hold the responsibility for a large proportion of these deaths.

Perhaps the anti-abortion movement is merely a modern outlet to an institution that had historically thrived on ruthlessness. For the "right to life" movement in many cases simply boils down to forcing the mother to die.

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a.The reader will note later that "right to life" is a misnomer.
b.Again the reader will note later that "Thou shalt not kill" could equally well be violated when one does not have an abortion.


1.Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p68
2.Ibid: p74-75
3.Ibid: p249
4.Stein, Encyclopedia of Unbelief: p462
5.Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p301
6.Quoted in Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p301
7.Ibid: p302
8.Quoted in Knight, Honest to Man: p160
9.Quoted in Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p302
10.Granfield, David, The Abortion Decision (1967) quoted in de Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p535 Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p535
12.Ranke-Heinemann, op cit: p309
13.Cornwell, Breaking Faith:p141
14.Evangelium Vitae1995: Chapter 3 para 57
15.Singer, Practical Ethics: p210
16.Wikipedia: Ectopic Pregnancy
17."Ectopic for Discussion: A Catholic Approach to Tubal Pregnancies" from the Catholics United for Faith website.
18.Singer, op. cit.: p209-211
Harris, On Cloning: p130-131
19.Singer, op. cit.: p210
20.ibid.: p210
21.Nick Miles, "Abortion Ruling Splits Nicaragua", BBC News Online, March 4, 2003
Giles Tremlett & Rupert Widdicombe, "Rebellion forces Vatican u-turn in child rape case", The Guardian International, March 7, 2003
"Nicaraguan Family No Longer Being Excommunicated" Planned, March 10 2003
22.Catholic Doctrine and Your Health, May 24th 2000
23.IPPF Abortion: advocating for the right to safe abortion services
Nicholas Kristoff, "Terror of Childbirth", Op-Ed Column, New York Times, March 20, 2004

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