Abortion has been one of the most divisive issues in America since states were forbidden to outlaw abortion after the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision. Since that time, over 50 million abortions have been performed in the United States with an average of 3400 abortions being performed each day. On one side of this contentious issue, those who call themselves “pro-choice” believe that abortion is a private medical decision that should take place between a woman and her doctor, without interference from the government or anyone else. On the other side, those who describe themselves as “pro-life” believe abortion is the killing of children before they are born and therefore should never be tolerated in a free society. So where does the Catholic Church stand in the debate between “pro-life” and “pro-choice?”
The Catholic Church’s position on abortion is clear. In the magisterial document Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life) the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith affirmed that, “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life,” (Sec I.1) Direct abortion, or the intentional killing of a human being living in the womb, is always seriously immoral because as persons the right-to-life is the most basic and fundamental right we possess. Even in light of this clear teaching, some questions that afflict people of conscience include:
Q: Does the Catholic Church oppose abortion if it is needed to save a woman’s life?
A: We may never perform an intrinsically evil act even to bring about a great good. For example, a just society cannot intentionally kill innocent civilians in a war, even for the praiseworthy goal of ending a conflict quickly and saving many lives. Likewise, in the context of pregnancy, a woman may not be killed in order to save the life of her child, and a child may not be killed in order to save the life of his mother. However, the Church does permit morally neutral medical procedures designed to save a pregnant woman’s life that may have an unintended side-effect of causing a child to die in the womb, such as the removal of a cancerous uterus. (For a more detailed treatment of this topic, see this essay by the Diocese’s Medical Ethicist Fr. John Ehrich)
Q: Does the Catholic Church oppose abortion in the case of pregnancy due to rape or incest?
A: In Romans 12:21 Paul says that we should not be conquered by evil but that we should conquer evil with good. The act of rape is a grave sin and an injustice that claims too many people, most often women and children, as victims. The Church teaches that victims of rape deserve immediate medical, emotional and spiritual care. The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (#36) states that Catholic healthcare providers have a duty to provide this care and to prevent the contraction of disease or the conception of a child.However, if a child is conceived in a pregnancy caused by rape, then this child is just as innocent and precious as the woman who was victimized and he or she should not be killed because of the actions of the rapist. The Church teaches that through mercy and love, a non-violent solution for both mother and child is far superior to helping a victim of violence (the raped woman) commit violence against her own child through abortion.
Q: What about women who have had abortions? How does the church view them?
A: According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, if current trends continue, by age 45 one in three women will have had at least one abortion. While the church teaches that abortion is gravely immoral, she also teaches that God’s mercy and grace are never far from those who have sinned and seek God’s forgiveness. Along with women who have had abortions, it is common that the woman’s partner, family, friends, the abortion provider, and even society at large, are complicit in reaffirming (or even guilty of pressuring her) to make the “choice” of abortion. In the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae Pope John Paul II wrote a special message to women who are post-abortive. He wrote,
“I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.” —99
Q: Has the Church always opposed legal abortion?
A: Some critics of the Church’s teaching on abortion have attempted to twist history and make it seem as if the Church has only recently opposed abortion. But a thorough look at the writings of the Church fathers and members of the magisterium shows that this is simply not the case. Consider the following examples of Church teaching on the issue of abortion (available from Catholic Answers):
“You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child”
— Didache 2:1–2 70 A.D.
“we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from the other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed”
—Tertullian. Apology 9:8 – 197 A.D.
“Let her that procures abortion undergo ten years’ penance, whether the embryo were perfectly formed, or not”
—St. Basil the Great. First Canonical Letter, canon 2 – 374 A.D.
John Paul II recounts how the Popes of the 20th century carried on this ancient tradition and says this in Evangelium Vitae:
“Given such unanimity in the doctrinal and disciplinary tradition of the Church, Paul VI was able to declare that this tradition is unchanged and unchangeable. Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops — who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine — I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.” —62