Where does the Catholic teaching on abortion come from?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Thursday 23, August 2018 | Category:   Doctrines & Beliefs
Newborn
We hold that the fundamental value of human life is not measured by personal achievements, but by our origin and destiny in God.

Our faith acknowledges God as the author of life. This understanding makes all life deserving of welcome and respect. As moral theologian James Hanigan explains: “Conception, pregnancy, and birth are not, in the Church’s eyes, private matters as the Supreme Court would have it, but matters of fundamental concern to God and to the entire human community.”

Early church documents (see the Didache and the Letter of Barnabas) categorically prohibited abortions. Christian writer Athenagoras (2nd c.) compared any abortive measures to homicide. Not all church fathers agreed. Jerome and Augustine taught that human life begins when the “scattered elements” form a discernible body, while Basil dismissed distinctions based on fetal development. As late as the first codified canon law (ca. 1140), the gravity of abortion was measured by whether or not the fetus was formed and “ensouled”. The abortion of an unensouled fetus was considered a serious sin, but not grave enough to require excommunication. By 1869, the biology of fertilization was better understood, and canonical distinctions of ensoulment were dropped.

Today, three principles frame the church’s argument against abortion. The first two are not derived from revelation but from science. First, it’s scientifically conceded that a fertilized egg is a genetically unique life. If its progress is not interrupted, this life will eventually be universally identified as a human being. This defines abortion as the evident taking of a human life—a clear violation of the fifth Commandment.

Second, science cannot distinguish a moment in the developmental process in which this genetically unique life departs some preliminary or potential nature to “cross the line” into full humanity. Therefore, attempts to draw that line at a given stage are mere decisions, not actual determinations of humanity. Third, we hold that the fundamental value of human life is not measured by personal achievements, but by our origin and destiny in God. Life in the womb is as valuable to God as the person at life’s end. This is, to God, the same person.

These arguments aren’t about civil rights but about the meaning of life altogether. They don’t pretend to address the social and economic realities faced by women and girls who conceive in undesirable or unsupportive circumstances. Nor do they speak to the real jeopardy sometimes faced by the other inestimably valuable life in the equation of birth, the mother herself. More teaching is needed.

Scripture: Genesis 1:26-28; Exodus 20:13; 21:22-23

Books: The Seamless Garment: Writings on the Consistent Ethic of Life, by Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin (Orbis Books, 2008)

Tough Choices: Bringing Moral Issues Home, by Sean Lynch (Ave Maria Press, 2003)

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