Thursday, November 16, 2006

Catholicism and Abortion: A History

I was fortunate to receive a copy of the following essay via email from Judith Arcana. I immediately contacted Judith to ask if I could post it here and she was gracious enough to allow me to do so.

I wanted to post this piece because we are sorely in need of a history and theology lesson. I'm tired of the Right co-opting God and morality, I'm tired of people shouting at me that they know what God wants, I'm tired of being told that faithful people who are pro-choice are "false prophets," and I'm tired, frankly, of crappy research and theorizing that depends more hegemonic beliefs than it does on fact.

When the man said "the truth will set you free," he meant exactly this kind of truth and the way that it sets us free to think for ourselves and to think about the repercussions of simply believing what others tell us is true.
A Short Essay About A Long History
by Judith Arcana, November 2006

Recently I learned that my work was being discussed on some anti-abortion websites because I’d been invited to do three events in early October at Loyola University of Chicago.

There was one guy who wrote that he was moved to reach for his baseball bat and shotgun when he thought about my being a guest at Loyola. There was one woman who argued for the value of diverse opinions. Everybody else expressed anger and sadness. The general outrage was focused on the fact that I, a writer and activist for reproductive justice, had been invited to visit a Catholic school, a Jesuit university (of which, by the way, I am a graduate).

The anti-abortion people’s responses reminded me how ignorant almost everybody is about the history of the Church in relation to abortion, how crucial that history is for Catholic women and girls, and how damaging that ignorance can be in the lives of millions, both Catholic and not. Fact is, Church thinking and policy on abortion have been various, to say the least, over many hundreds of years.

I learned this while studying at the Rockefeller Archives in New York in 1999. I was reading texts about abortion, contraception and related issues, including the founding of Planned Parenthood, an enterprise of importance to some members of the Rockefeller family. I read a pamphlet prepared in the nineteen-seventies by Catholics for a Free Choice; I read hundreds of pages of minutes from meetings, a variety of reports, and lots of correspondence. My goal was simply to take in as much as I could and maybe riff on what I’d found, writing poems for a book manuscript (What if your mother*). I was flat-out amazed at what I learned, and I want to tell everybody all about it.

You might ask: Why? What’s the big deal? And if you did, I’d answer: The Catholic Church is a source of huge amounts of money and influence in the international politics of reproductive justice, and fights fiercely to prevent access to authentic sex education and effective family planning services all over the world.

So. First of all, I see it’s useful to include Aristotle, that ever-present precursor to, and influence upon, Christianity: he theorized that a fetus becomes human (is “ensouled”) 40 days after conception if male, 80 if female. Since there was no way for him or anybody else in those days to know the sex of a fetus at any time during pregnancy, his theory is intriguing, to say the least. Aristotle was born in 384 BCE and died in 322 BCE; clever as he was, he did a certain amount of damage in his 62 years.

Now, on to the Church he influenced, for a selection of useful, interesting bits:
St. Jerome (b.347, d.420), was beatified in 1747 and canonized in 1767. He wrote to a woman named Algasis (probably his student) that “seeds are gradually formed in the uterus, and it [abortion] is not reputed homicide until the scattered elements receive their appearances and members.” Why he embraced that idea we cannot say, but we can say that such thinking scarcely supports an absolute anti-abortion position.

Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) held that abortion was “not irregular” if the fetus was not yet “vivified” or “animated.” This distinction evokes the concept of “quickening,” which was until recently a notable marker in fetal development but now is often displaced by “viability” as a result of new medical technology and legal considerations.

Innocent’s principles were adopted into the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX, who was pope in his very old age (1227-1241). Gregory was a complicated guy, by no means a champ on every front. His record is a fine reminder of how important it is for us to recognize complexity. Born in 1145, he lived almost a hundred years and is sometimes said to have been a hero to St. Francis (who died the year before Gregory became pope), but he preached in favor of the Crusades and burned heretics.

Thomas Aquinas (b.1225, d.1274), of all people, turns out to have been one of those who thought that abortion of only an “animated” fetus should be considered murder, a thoughtful position even now, despite the complications of “viability.”

One of my personal favorites is Tom├ís Sanchez (b.1550, d.1610), a Jesuit scholar. He said that abortion was lawful when the fetus was not yet “ensouled” and also when the mother would die from carrying it to term. I thought of him instantly when the anti-abortion people complained about my being invited to a Jesuit university. (I have to tell you that my copy of the Fall issue of Loyola’s magazine arrived this week, and its cover says: “Welcome home to Loyola.”)

It’s useful to know that the catechism of the Council of Trent in 1566 held that “in the natural order, no body can be informed by a human soul except after the prescribed space of time.” Though the “prescribed space of time” is unclear, council discussion was about the business of ensuring that Jesus was understood to be different from everyone else in human form because his soul was joined to his body at the time of conception, unlike all (other) human beings. This seems a useful note to sound when discussing abortion.

Sixtus V outlawed all abortion in 1588. That was the year the Protestant Virgin Queen, Elizabeth Tudor, thoroughly trounced the power of the Church through her navy’s defeat of the Spanish Armada, a fleet blessed by the Pope and considered invincible in much the same way the Titanic was later considered unsinkable. As I recall, the Armada suffered from rough weather in the English Channel almost as much as from the smaller, faster ships that harried them, but I can’t help thinking Sixtus may have been in an especially misogynist frame of mind. Mind you, I don’t even know which came first, the edict or the defeat; but he certainly was in a near-constant rage about Elizabeth in those years.

Only three years later, another victory for the girls’ team: Pope Gregory XIV changed the law in 1591. He allowed abortions to be done up to the 40th day of gestation (some scholars dispute this, putting Gregory’s deadline at the even longer sixteen and a half weeks). Pinpointing the moment of conception then was surely no less dicey than it is now, so this ruling was a gift to women.

Saint Alphonsus Ligouri (b. 1696, d.1787) said that the fetus is “certainly not animated before it is formed.” It’s fair to assume he was referring to the “form” of a human being (as opposed, for example, to a five or six week fetus, which still has a discernible tail). He also said abortion should be allowed when needed to save the life of the mother.

In 1869, less than a hundred years after Saint Alphonsus’ death, Pope Pius IX forbade all abortion. Like Sixtus V, he was a hardliner, and that hard line, a ruling made less than 150 years ago, is church law in our time.

Pius XII announced in 1958 that the pill, that miracle of mid-20th century chemistry, was immoral because it prevents ovulation. Pius was a big opponent of overt sexuality as well as birth control. (What with the current connections so often made among stem cell research, conception, contraception, and abortion, I’ll note here that in that same year a Nobel prize for physiology and medicine was shared by Joshua Lederberg and the team of George W. Beadle/Edward Tatum, all of whom were working on genetics.)

Pius died the same year he banned the pill, and John XXIII became pope, bringing joy to millions of people all over the world, many of whom were not even members of his church. But he died in less than five years, so we will never know if his intelligence and compassion could have led him to the kind of radical shift implemented by those other popes in the past. We do know that his bishops affirmed “the value and necessity of wisely planned education of children in human sexuality.” Whatever they actually meant by this, their statement certainly could, even now, be interpreted as good news.

In the middle of 1964, Pope Paul announced that the Church position on birth control was “being studied.” Though this is a time-honored method of delaying action (often forever), John D. Rockefeller III considered it an opportunity to further the cause of family planning. He was cautioned, in the correspondence I read at the Archives, that there would be no overturning of papal proclamations, only the possibility of reinterpretation. There was an exchange in which he was urged to understand that the Church would not accept contraception that “destroys the natural structure of the marital act,” but he still thought there might be some acceptance of methods that intervene in the physiology of an individual person. That is, devices would be forbidden while chemicals would be allowed. But the pill remained condemned, and no part of JDR3’s hopeful interpretation has yet been realized.

Benedict now occupies the papal throne. His presence there may seem a grim emblem in the face of the desperately difficult struggle for women’s reproductive health. But Benedict now has to consider the use of condoms in relation to AIDS. I bet he’s thinking about this history of differing opinions, edicts, principles, and the willingness of all those men to contradict each other, to overturn each other’s rules.

Knowing that Vatican law has not been constant may make us angry: uncounted millions of women’s motherhood decisions have been dictated by all that back-and-forth. Or, knowing that Vatican law has not been constant may make us joyous: the generosity and grace of some men of the Church brought relief and release to many women and girls. Either way, knowing this history is provocative, energizing, liberating. Let’s tell everybody all about it.

*You can order copies of What if your mother from your local independent bookstore, from, or directly from the publisher at

You can learn more about Judith Arcana and read more of her writing here.


aus blog said...

Wow you've been busy with this one.

Some of us don't have a god...

I'm 98% pro-life and 2% pro-choice, though the 2% didn't come easy.

World estimations of the number of terminations carried out each year is somewhere between 20 and 88 million.

Over 3,500 per day / Over 1.3 million per year in America alone.

50% of that 1.3 million claimed failed birth control was to blame.

A further 48% had failed to use any birth control at all.

And 2% had medical reasons.

That means a staggering 98% may have been avoided had an effective birth control been used.

Australia (with a population of 20 million) terminated over 100 thousand young people last year. I've done the figures and Australia do more per head.

Abortion has got to be by far the Mother of all holocausts, the most extensive crime against humanity the world has ever seen.

Though it pains me to say it but, there may always be a need for the 2% medical reasons and such, but that's all.

So how do we get the other 98% to be responsible...................

How do we get them to be honest with themselves, about when life begins.

egg+sperm = human being

Sadly many prefer to have an occasional abortion over using birth control, they have all kinds of reasons, each of them selfish.

Then there's the christian impossition,(all a bit talibanish), and their men in high places.(church and state should never entwine) their stance against b/c has only added to the numbers.

Sanity must provale, abortions should remain available and safe to the 2% and such and the rest need to have a good look at themselves and get their act together.

I'd like to see effective birth control made available to all who can't afford it.

People have to stop using abortion as birth control.....

If conception is NOT when life begins,and a clump of cells is just that and not a living human being.
Then at least concider this-

Soon after you were conceived you were no more than a clump of cells.
This clump of cells was you at your earliest stage, you had plenty of growing to do but this clump of cells was you none the less. Think about it.
Aren't you glad you were left unhindered to develope further.
Safe inside your mother's womb until you were born.

Kelsey said...

More like aus blah blah blah

Plain(s)feminist said...

aus blog -
Welcome back.

You are welcome to comment here if you post material that is relevant and original. When you commented last time, I deleted your comments because you continually 1) posted the same 3 or 4 comments here that you were posting on several other people's blogs, verbatim, whether or not they were relevant to the topic at hand (this is the equivalent of spamming); 2) posted your thoughts on abortion on non-abortion posts.

For the record, today's comment is a good example of a post that isn't terribly relevant to the topic at hand, since Arcana is writing entirely about Catholicism and you are not, at all. However, I can see that you are trying to suggest a non-religious defense of your position, and this is where the relevance lies.

If what you are interested in is an abortion debate, I doubt you will find it here. In that case, I suggest that you post a comment on relevant posts with a link to your blog and invite readers there to debate with you.


aus blog said...

your cool:)

Anonymous said...

If my Mother had chosen to abort me, I wouldn't have known it, so therefore it wouldn't matter. That is one of the lamest anti-abortion excuses used.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Yeah, gotta agree with Foxgrandma on this one.

buy viagra said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.