Religion is by no means a proper
subject of conversation in a mixed company.
Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4 th Earl
of Chesterfield (1694-1773), letter to his godson, number
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
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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