Catholics May Have Good Reason for Abortion Reform




Nick Gier, Professor
Emeritus, University of Idaho">

See also "Abortion, Person, and the Fetus"

The law does not provide that the act abortion pertains to

for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks

–Augustine of

The intellective soul [true person] is created by God
at the completion of man’s coming into being.

–Thomas  Aquinas

Many modern philosophers and theologians return to St. Thomas’

–Joseph F.Donceel, S. J.

The Scriptures are silent in defining when one becomes a

Evangelical John Pelt

In April of 2007 the Mexico City
government voted 46-19 to decriminalize abortion, the first city in Latin
America (except Cuba) where elective abortions are now legal.  These Countries
do allow therapeutic abortions in the case of rape and a threat to the life of
the mother. A papal envoy sent to the Mexican capital
before the vote declared that any Catholic legislator who supported the bill
would be excommunicated, but a large majority ignored the threat.  Other scare
tactics, such as comparing abortion to suicide bombing, apparently did not work.

Most people do not realize that at
one time the Vatican had a less strict view on abortion.  The killing of a first
trimester fetus was not murder until a papal decree of 1869, and canon law on
this point was not changed until 1917.  It is worth noting that over 90 percent
of all American abortions are performed in the first trimester.

Drawing on Greek ideas of fetal
development that are partially confirmed by current science, St. Thomas Aquinas
believed that the fetus was not a person until late in pregnancy. The Catholic
philosopher Jacques Maritain declared that "to admit that the human fetus" is a
person "from the moment of conception . . . sounds to me like a philosophical

The 1917 change in canon law may
have been the result of applying genetics to the abortion issue.  Some have
argued that the conceptus is a person because it has a unique genetic identity.
Most animal fetuses have unique genetic identities, so does this mean that we
have to protect their lives as well?

This argument confuses genetic and
personal identity.  Twins have the same genetic identity, but they become two
different moral and legal persons. With the technology of cloning every cell in
the body could be made into thousands of persons all with the same genetic
identity. It is supremely ironic that the genetic
argument completely undermines the idea of the person as a spiritual being. 
Genetics deals only with the material body, not our spiritual natures, which
are, according to Judeo-Christianity, special creations in "the image of God." 

St.Thomas believed that the divine
image is implanted late in pregnancy, not a conception.  He concluded that the
person "is created by God at the completion of man’s coming into being."  As
surprising as it sounds, the greatest Catholic theologian, declared infallible
by Pius IX, would have agreed with Roe v. Wade.

Not only can Catholics make sound
philosophical arguments for abortion reform, they can also make strong practical
arguments.  Just because abortion is illegal does not mean that it does not
happen. The gruesome ways that it does occur cries out for reform.

The Alan Guttmacher Institute (
has estimated that 4 million illegal abortions are performed in Latin America
each year, and approximately 800,000 women are hospitalized because of
complications resulting from unsafe techniques.  It is estimated that 1,500
Mexican women die each year because of clandestine abortions.

The Guttmacher report has made a
list of the techniques Latin American women use because they are not offered
safe, legal abortions.  These desperate women take caustic substances orally and
vaginally, or they insert rubber tubes (sometimes with toxic fluids), wires,
knitting needles, or just sticks.

Compared to an abortion rate of 11
per 1,000 women in Western Europe and 26 per 1,000 in the U.S., there are an
estimated 37 abortions for every thousand Latin American women.  More abortions
are performed in Brazil alone than in the U.S, even though the U.S. has 122
million more people. The Guttmacher report
demonstrated that Latin American abortion rates have dropped since 1980
primarily because of increased use of contraceptives. In direct opposition to
church doctrine, Mexico and Columbia have national family planning programs;
and, significantly, they also have the lowest abortion rates in Latin America. 

When Pius IX moved personhood back
to conception in 1869 that meant that stricter controls had to be placed on all
attempts to prevent fertilization. The double ban on abortion and contraception
has been disastrous for women’s health in Catholic countries.
Using sound philosophical and practical arguments, Catholics can promote
sex education, systematic family planning programs, and safe, legal abortion. 
The logic is simple: fewer unwanted pregnancies mean fewer abortions and
healthier mothers.




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