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    Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4 th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773), letter to his godson, number 112


    Abortion has been practised almost universally since prehistoric times. The early Churches prohibited it, although there is no scriptural authority for such a prohibition. Indeed the Bible indicates that it is not a serious crime to cause an abortion. For example, if a pregnant woman is struck and suffers a miscarriage the offender should merely be fined, but if the woman herself is killed then the offender should die (Exodus 21:22-23). Evidently God accorded different values to the lives of the foetus and the mother.

    Abortion can be seen as following the same general pattern as many other social issues, with the Churches arriving at a liberal conclusion in the conventional order. The liberal Churches have already joined the freethinkers" camp, and many others have started to move away from their original position. The Anglican Church has already arrived. There is, however, a twist since the Roman Catholic has made its initial move in the opposite direction. The Church's traditional teaching, expounded by St Thomas Aquinas, was that a foetus is provided with its soul 40 days after conception if it is male and 80 days after conception if it is unlucky enough to be female*. Before it acquired a soul an embryo was regarded as inanimate (foetus inanimatus); it only became a foetus animatus, and thus human, after acquiring a soul. Up until this time the fetus was "unformed". Medieval drawings show the soul entering a fetus, converting it from inanimate and "unformed" to animate and "formed".

    The Catholic Church law was very clear that it was not a crime to carry out an abortion if the fetus was still "unformed". Here is the greatest authority on traditional Church Law, citing Saint Augustine of Hippo.

    Are those procuring abortion guilty of murder or not?
    Augustine, in Questions on Exodus, [Question lxxx], says:

    One who procures abortion before the soul is infused into the body is not a murderer. An embryo which is not yet formed cannot be murdered, nor can it properly be considered a human being in the womb. This depends on the soul, for when something is unformed and has no soul, it cannot be murdered. Something cannot be deprived of a soul if it does not have one.

    §1. Also: For even if an unformed embryo had, in some as yet unformed way, a soul (and one should not plunge into this great question and give a rash unreflective opinion), the law would not call it murder, because one cannot tell when a body that lacks sensation has a living soul.
    (Decretum gratiani, part 5, Case 32, q II, C8)

    and this view was confirmed by reference to the bible;

    Moses related that [cf. Ex. 21:22], ``If one strike a woman with child, and she miscarry, indeed, if it is formed, he shall render life for life, if it is unformed, he shall be answerable for a monetary fine.'' This proves that soul does not exist before there is a form. Thus, as it must be infused in an already formed body, this cannot occur at the conception of the body with the introduction of the seed. For if the soul existed as both seed and soul together, many souls would perish daily, whenever seed was emitted that did not result in a birth.

    Pope Gregory XIII confirmed the traditional line in the sixteenth century: it cannot be homicide to kill an embryo of less than 40 days, because it is not yet human1. Roman canon law maintained the distinction between a foetus animatus and a foetus inanimatus until 1869 , when it was suddenly abandoned. We do not hear much about it nowadays. Instead the Roman Catholic Church now claims that the human soul is implanted at conception, which provides an argument for banning all abortion. Without this shift the Church would have no argument for banning abortion before the 40th day of pregnancy for boys or the 80th day for girls.

    The Church's new ideas led to some curious conclusions. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the Roman Church held on a number of occasions that a physician must not perform an abortion to save the life of a pregnant woman who was certain to die without medical intervention. The question was whether a non-viable foetus should be delivered early to save the mother's life, or whether mother and foetus should be left to die together (in the circumstances these were the only options). The Holy Office with the approval of Pope Leo XIII held that in such cases both must die. Even in extreme cases, such as an ectopic pregnancy where the foetus could not possibly survive, the mother must die rather than undergo a relatively simple operation to save her life2. This teaching continued into the late twentieth century, and is only a little better in the twenty first. In 2009 a Brazilian archbishop excommunicated everyone involved in aborting two fetuses that doctors agreed had no chance of survival. A small nine year old girl had been raped, apparently by her step-father, and become pregnant with twins. Medical opinion was that her uterus was too small to carry even one child to term. The Church had tried to stop an abortion going ahead, and when the attempt failed excommunicated the girl's mother and doctors. The Vatican agreed with the archbishop both that the mother and doctors should be excommunicated and that the father should not be excommunicated — since the mother's and doctors" crimes were so much more serious in the eyes of the Church3.

    As a consequence of continuing Roman Catholic attitudes to contraception and abortion, vast numbers of women are driven to backstreet abortionists, causing many to die unnecessarily. In South America for example it is estimated that such abortions cause half of all deaths during pregnancy4. Since the fall of communism in eastern Europe, the Roman Church has succeeded in making abortion illegal there. In Catholic countries, women continue to die unnecessarily - though such cases often cause a public outcry in increasingly secular societies.5

    Conservative Churches in the USA also campaign to have abortion prohibited. Physicians have been murdered by enthusiastic Christians, who claim to be doing God's work. Such murders are justified by traditional Jesuit arguments. Many fellow Christians hail these murderers as heroes, and physicians in the USA are ever less willing to risk their lives by carrying out legal abortions — even when they are medically necessary.


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    * Gregory was merely stating the established papal teaching. Pope Innocent III in the thirteenth century had stated that a monk who had persuaded his mistress to have an abortion was not guilty of murder as long as the foetus had not yet been animated.

    1. Pagan Greek philosophers taught a range of ideas, from Pythagoras who held that a fetus was fully human from its conception to Empedocles and later Stoics who held that it became human only at birth. The idea of acquiring a human soul some time after conception was based on the teachings of Aristotle. He thought that the soul was acquired after 40 or 90 days for males and females respectively. Thomas Aquinas picked up and adopted this idea. He (and the Roman Church) taught that it was 40 and 80 days, adopting the periods of ritual uncleanness specified in the Bible (Leviticus 12:1-5).

    2. In statements on specific cases in 1884, 1885, 1886 and 1889, the Roman Church confirmed its view that a pregnant woman must not be saved from death when she and her child would otherwise both die. This was confirmed in 1930 in Pius XI's Casti connubii. See Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, pp 271-2.

    3. The nine year old girl was unnamed for legal reasons, but the archbishop who excommunicated her mother and doctors was Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, Archbishop of Olinda and Recife. He was supported by a senior Vatican cleric Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Catholic church's Congregation for Bishops. As the archbishop said "God's law is above any human law. So when a human law. is contrary to God's law, this human law has no value," http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/americas/03/11/brazil.rape.abortion/index.html & http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7926694.stm

    4. "Mother Inferior", The Economist, p 96, 23 rd November 1985.

    5. http://edition.cnn.com/2012/11/14/world/europe/ireland-abortion-controversy/index.html Woman's Death Prompts Abortion Debate in Ireland, from Peter Taggart, for CNN, November 15, 2012. In this case a Hindu woman was miscarrying. Her baby could not be saved, but she could. Her husband begged for medical intervention, but was told "Sorry, can't help you. It's a Catholic country. Can't help you. It's a Catholic team.'


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