‘Life Begins At Conception’ Wasn’t Always The Church’s Position: A History Of Abortion

By T. Steelman | 21 March 2013
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The idea that life begins at conception hasn’t always been the Church’s position. This history of abortion details the vagaries of Christian views. Is a 6-week fetus, unviable for life outside of mother, really a “person”? (Image: Jordan Uhl / Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

As the question of abortion consumes the attention of politicians and activists it would behoove us to examine the factual history of abortion. The involvement of religion has long been intertwined with its political aspects, but despite what the Catholic Church says, their views on abortion have been inconsistent over its history. Leading one to wonder, how did a woman’s personal matter became part of the business of the Church?

Pregnancy and everything surrounding it, from contraception to abortion to birth, began as exclusively woman’s territory. As it should be. In ancient times, there were wise women and herbalists to help a woman traverse the process of reproduction. Abortifacient herbs have been found in ancient archeological sites. Though primitive, their methods worked with minimal side-effects or other problems.

Abortion is an ancient practice.

The earliest written evidence of abortion appears in the Ebers Papyrus, which dates back to 1550 BC. It is believed to be the earliest written medical document and includes chapters on gynecology and obstetrics, as well as other medical conditions. Chinese folklore dates the use of mercury to induce abortions to about 5,000 years ago. Of course, mercury is extremely toxic and would have caused other medical problems.

The Bible records (in Numbers) the use of an abortifacient potion used in testing for infidelity. This was given to pregnant women when adultery was suspected. The “bitter water” used to “bring on the curse” may have been quinine or several of other herbal and natural concoctions that are considered emmenagogues (drugs that bring on menstruation).

Abortion was a common practice among the Greeks and Romans. It is believed that Hippocrates used dilation and curettage to induce abortions, as he was opposed to potions and pessaries. Philosophically, the culture was okay with it, too. Aristotle wrote:

When couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun: What may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation.

Similar thought prevailed in India and the East. In Brahman law, the fetus was not considered to be “a person” until after the fifth month. At this time, the so-called quickening, women could be punished for murder if they aborted. Before then, the fetus was soulless.

Abortion in the Middle Ages: the Church weighs in.

In Medieval times, herbs were used almost exclusively to promote miscarriage. A medieval herbal reference listed herbs used to induce abortions in the 11th century. Pennyroyal, which can be dangerous, was among the herbs mentioned, but so were catnip, rue, sage, savory, cypress, and hellebore. Some of the herbs are listed (and still are) as emmenagogues rather than explicitly as abortifacients, but since the most common cause of a late menstrual period is pregnancy, there is little doubt why they were prescribed and used. Hildegard of Bingen mentions the use of tansy to bring on menstruation (another dangerous herb).

This right of women to control their own child-bearing was not questioned in most places until fairly recently in our history. In very ancient times, it was believed that women spontaneously formed a child from withheld menses. But with the realization that men were half of the equation, and the rise of Patriarchal religions, woman’s private matter became men’s concern. An early belief was that a man’s sperm gave the fetus its soul. According to magical thought, all the body’s effluvia (blood, spittle, hair, fingernails) was to be kept safe, lest sorcerers cause injury to the living person by using what was once part of him. Surely if a fetus was destroyed, being as it was part of a man’s soul, great harm would befall him. It’s not a great leap then, to forbid abortion.

In the early Christian church, sex itself was seen as sinful, even for procreation. That was bad enough but sex for pleasure was positively heinous. Early discussion about abortion was thoughtful yet critical. The Didache, an early Church document, asked two questions about abortion: 1) Is abortion being used to conceal the sins of fornication and adultery? and 2) Does the fetus have a rational soul from the moment of conception, or does it become an “ensouled human” at a later point? This debate – when does a fetus become ensouled – became the cornerstone of the debate which continues to this day.

St. Augustine, not known for permissiveness, held that abortion was a sin only in that it broke the linear progression from sex to new human life. However, in his Enchiridion he stated:

But who is not rather disposed to think that unformed fetuses perish like seeds which have not fructified?

In other words, the fetus received its soul at some point in its growth, not at conception. As far as being a sin, it was only seen to be so if it was intended to conceal fornication and/or adultery.

The Irish Canons of the 8th century gave penance for abortion at 3-and-a-half years, while the “penance of one who has intercourse with a woman” is given as seven years on bread and water. It is clear which was considered the greater sin. A bit later in the century, in the Penitential Ascribed by Albers to Bede, the idea of delayed ensoulment is again supported. And, believe it or not, the woman’s circumstances are acknowledged:

A mother who kills her child before the fortieth day shall do penance for one year. If it is after the child has become alive, [she shall do penance] as a murderess. But it makes a great difference whether a poor woman does it on account of the difficulty of supporting [the child] or a harlot for the sake of concealing her wickedness.

The first official Canon recognized as authoritative within Church Law was compiled in 1140 by Gratian. Among these was a canon stating explicitly that He is not a murderer who brings about abortion before the soul is in the body.

Dueling papal views on abortion.

The Council of Vienne was called in 1323 by Pope Clement V. During it, St. Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on conception and abortion were confirmed. While he had opposed abortion as a form of contraception and a sin against marriage, he maintained that the sin in abortion was not homicide. Aquinas said the fetus is first endowed with a vegetative soul, then an animal soul, and then — when its body is developed — a rational soul. This theory of “delayed hominization” is the most consistent thread throughout church history on abortion. It was believed to occur at 40 days after conception for male fetuses, and 90 days after conception for female fetuses.

In 1588, Pope Sixtus V issued a bill decreeing that both contraception and abortion were to be punished by excommunication. There was no exception for therapeutic abortion. This law was relaxed by Pope Gregory XIV soon after Sixtus’ death. He felt it was too harsh and inconsistent with Church teaching’s on ensoulment. As late as the 18th century, the church’s greatest moral theologian, St. Alfonsus Liguori, was still denying that the soul was infused at conception. Like Aquinas before him, he did not say direct abortion was right, but his view allowed a flexibility of approach to abortion, especially when the mother’s life was in danger.

For about three hundred years, the Church accepted the doctrine of delayed hominization. But theologians continued to debate abortion; was it all right in certain circumstances? Was it okay in cases of rape or incest? Or to save the mother’s life? All the while, abortion was not considered murder if performed in the first 90 days after conception. It was a sin and punishable with penance, and in some cases excommunication, but it was not murder.

Then, in 1869, completely ignoring earlier teachings, Pope Pius IX wrote in Apostolicae Sedis that excommunication is the required penalty for abortion at any stage of pregnancy. He further stated that all abortion was homicide. This was an implicit endorsement – the church’s first – of ensoulment at conception.

Abortion in the modern age.

This set the stage for the modern stigma attached to abortion. The revised Church Canon, compiled in 1917, required excommunication both for a woman who aborts and for any others, such as doctors and nurses, who take part in an abortion. Clearly, things were getting stricter. Therapeutic abortions were attacked in 1930, when Pope Pius XI condemned abortion in general. He also specified three instances: in the case of therapeutic abortion; in marriage to prevent offspring; and on social and eugenic grounds. Pius’s stance on abortion remains the hierarchical view today.

The Second Vatican Council (in 1965), declared:

Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception; abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.

With this, abortion is now condemned on the basis of protecting life. All previous ideas about it being used as a concealment of sexual sin have been thrown by the wayside. With 1974’s Declaration on Procured Abortion, the position is that the fetus is a human life from the moment of conception, if not necessarily a full human being. At that point, the church had fully changed the terms of its original arguments.

There are many examples of Reform Christianity’s consistent teaching that abortion is a serious and unconscionable sin. Early Protestant church leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin were quite strict on this point. In the early 60s, some branches became less so in their views. The Presbyterian Church has supported free and open access to abortion without legal restriction since 1970. They were joined by the United Methodists (1970), the Lutheran Church in America (1970), the United Church of Christ (1971)and the Disciples of Christ (1971). Most other sects of Protestantism hold with the Catholic Church’s absolutism on the denial of abortion.

So now we come to the present. At this point in human history you would think we would have come full circle to women’s health being the concern of the individual woman. Well, that would be nice but apparently we can’t quite get there. Male legislators and theologians continue to believe that they should have a say in this most personal of issues. Even with Roe v. Wade, obtaining an abortion in the United States is difficult. Thanks to anti-abortion groups, finding a practitioner is next to impossible. In some places a woman must travel hundreds of miles to find one, especially in the wake of all the recent abortion restrictions in some states. Women with the money to do so can procure an abortion without too much trouble, but poor, desperate women are left to their own devices, with no help from their government and little from charities. Planned Parenthood continues to be under attack. States are passing stricter abortion laws and more and more onerous regulations for clinics, attempting to drive them out of business. Even birth control is under attack. Bills requiring a zygote have the same rights as a person — aka, “personhood” — are gaining ground.

We have come so far yet still must go further. Why do men continue to think they ought to be able to control women by controlling their reproduction? Could they still, deep down, be afraid of the connection between their sperm and the fetus? Could they fear that any harm to it will be transferred to them? Deep down, in their primitive mind, are they still envious of woman’s ability to conceive, bear and nurture children? One hopes not, but it makes you wonder….

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