Moral Theology and Early Abortion

(This is Neil) In light of recent controversy, I thought that it might be useful to reproduce part of a note by the Redemptorist theologian Brian V. Johnstone, originally published in the Irish Theological Quarterly 70 (2005) 60. After the excerpt, I ask two hopefully relevant questions.

Here is Fr Johnstone:

… In 1591 Pope Gregory XIV had restricted the canonical, legal penalty for abortion to abortion of the animated foetus. In 1869 Pius IX issued a list of legal penalties. In this list, the distinction between the unanimated foetus and the animated foetus was abandoned. This meant that the legal, canonical penalty (excommunication) was no longer applied only to the abortion of the animated foetus (“late abortion”), but also to the abortion of the unanimated foetus (“early abortion”). This legislation was incorporated into the Code of 1917 and is maintained in Canon 1398 of the present Code. This was a matter of church legal discipline, not moral teaching as such.

Moral theologians who accepted the view that the human soul was not infused into the foetus at conception but only at some later point, would have held that aborting the unanimated foetus did not constitute the sin of homicide, tantamount to murder. But this did not mean that they regarded it as only a “venial” sin. There were debates among theologians as to whether abortion of an unanimated foetus might be justified to save the life of the mother. But such proposals were never accepted by Church teaching. So called “indirect” abortion, that is the foreseen, but unintended killing of the embryo as a result of a therapeutic intervention was accepted as morally justifiable in some cases. But I have not found any work by a Catholic moral theologian or any Church document in the period indicated (before 1869) which could be interpreted as holding that the direct abortion of the unanimated foetus was only a venial sin.

My questions:

1. Is there any scientific evidence that would lead us to return to the pre-1869 distinction between the unanimated fetus and the animated fetus? (I think not.)

2. Nevertheless, it is possible to see the distinction as presently compelling to some. Richard Stith has written that envisioning “gestation as construction, assembling, fabrication, making … has not only intuitive appeal today but a grand pedigree.” In such a view (which neither Stith nor I hold), we see the early stages of pregnancy as the working of “inert seminal material into a human shape.”

In light of this, it might be useful to know more about pre-1869 moral theologians and early abortion. If they did not consider aborting the unanimated fetus to be homicide, what sin did they consider it to be?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Neil. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Moral Theology and Early Abortion

  1. Todd says:

    Our scientific knowledge tells us when the cultural standard for life ends, namely heartbeat and brain activity. Catholic teaching, however, is not predicated on those as benchmarks on any moral spectrum.

    Early gestation is indeed a time of “construction, assembling, fabrication, making,” but again, such facts do not impact the moral problem with abortion.

    They might point, however, possible future stages at which society can arrive at a concensus as to a definable moment of life. It would be better than attachment to the mother or a position inside her organs.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Todd,

    Thanks, as always, for replying (and for your cyber-hospitality.

    That said, I don’t think that I understand your first paragraph.

    Regarding your second paragraph, the view that gestation is a time of “construction, assembling, facrication, making” is not a “fact” or series of facts, but a “way of thinking.” It is opposed to another “way of thinking”: that gestation is a time of “development” in which the unborn child manifests what it already is.

    Each “way of thinking” has moral implications. If you think that the child is being constructed in the womb, like a car on an assembly line, you will tend to think that it isn’t a human life until the end of the process of construction, or at least until the fetus is recognizably human (and loveable). Then, you will probably be pro-choice, at least for the first trimester.

    If you see gestation as a process of development, you will be more likely to be pro-life, for, as Stith writes (and this comment is all from Stith), “a developing being is already there as soon as it starts developing.”

    Take care,

  3. Todd says:

    Sorry about my lack of clarity on the first paragraph. I should have taken more words to say that society takes the benchmark of heartbeat or brain activity to determine the end of life. What’s good for the end would seem to be suitable (at minimum) for the beginning. So if a person accepts a seriously injured person’s brain activity as a standard of life, it would follow the same standard must be kept for the beginning of life.

    I see your point on the notion of fabrication, etc.. I agree it is an impersonal way of look at gestation time. I would see the genetic code providing the blueprint for the bones, organs, and components of the physical body. The psalmist (139:13) speaks of the wonder of God’s agency of “construction,” as it were.

    We get to the question of what defines us as human, and is that the only standard for care, “rights,” and all. I would disagree that a fully constructed body, heartbeat, or brainwaves define that. But then I would be straying from biology into philosophy.

    Had I been Pelosi’s interviewer, I would have brought up heartbeat, brain waves, and perhaps chided her allusion to Augustine’s or Aquinas’ ensoulment.

    As many commentators point out, we take better care of our pets. The solution, obviously, is not to treat animals like discarded fetuses, but unwanted fetuses as human beings.

    Thank you, Neil, for providing excellent content on this site. I don’t say that often enough, and I certainly don’t say it publicly as often as I should.

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Todd,

    Thanks for writing and your very generous words.

    Regarding the cessation of heartbeat or brain activity: I think that we should say that these are merely biological signs – not the only ones, perhaps not even infallible ones – that death has occurred. It does not follow that, say, a fully functioning heart is a necessary condition for all human life.

    John Paul II in 2000:

    “[Death] results from the separation of the life-principle (or soul) from the corporal reality of the person. The death of the person, understood in this primary sense, is an event which no scientific technique or empirical method can identify directly.”

    I wonder how Speaker Pelosi’s interview might have been different if Tim Russert were alive.

    Take care,

  5. Iacopus says:

    There is and can be no scientific evidence for or against the possibility of a fetus being animated or unanimated. That terminology refers to the point at which a soul enters the fetus–and, as there is no scientific way to investigate a soul (you can’t see, hear, feel, taste, or smell it) there is no scientific answer to that question.

  6. Todd says:

    Iacopus, I agree. That leaves the discussion purely in the realm of applying biology to any argument on the abortion issue. Heartbeats and brainwaves are what we have, and there’s no problem by me using that scientific side to apply to the issue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s