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Abortions Of Last Resort

February 18, 1990

Finally, the facts about late abortion are being told ("The Abortions of Last Resort," by Karen Tumulty, Jan. 7). I must take issue, however, with the statement: "Although the Roman Catholic Church now condemns abortion from conception, St. Augustine . . . believed it was murder only after the fetus formed--which he defined as 40 days of gestation for a male and 80 for a female."

The Church has always taught that an abortion is a grave sin. The Church of the first three centuries universally condemned abortion, and individual writers often used the word homicide to refer to the act. Speculations concerning different stages of fetal development had no effect on the condemnation of abortion as a grave sin.

During this early period, some theologians entertained speculations concerning the possibility of an immortal soul not being infused in the unborn child until some point after the onset of pregnancy. This theory was based primarily on two sources: the biological theories of Aristotle and the Greek (Septuagint) translation of Exodus 21:22-23 in the Old Testament. The Christian theologians of the time generally did not know Hebrew and, therefore, trusted in this Greek version as an accurate translation; they were not aware that the Jewish compilers of the Septuagint, who were also familiar with Aristotle, had interpolated the distinction between a "formed" and "unformed" fetus into the text. These speculations did not generally affect canon law at this stage, and they were explicitly rejected in the "Canonical Letter" of Basil the Great (AD 374-5), which refers to abortion at any stage as a form of murder.

Canon law of the 19th and 20th centuries treats all abortion as a form of homicide because modern biological knowledge had discredited the biological and philosophical theories which supported the Medieval idea of "delayed ensoulment."

Over the centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has vigorously advocated protection for the unborn human being--and we now continue that tradition.


Archbishop of Los Angeles

Karen Tumulty replies: As a product of Catholic schools, I would not presume to argue centuries-old theology with an archbishop. However, I did check with the theologians who provided the information I used in my article--particularly my assertion that St. Augustine did not consider abortion murder until a fetus was formed. They continue to insist that this was the case. The best reference I found was from his comments on Exodus 21:22, in which St. Augustine wrote: "The Law does not provide that the act (abortion) pertains to homicide, because one cannot as yet say there is a live soul in that body deprived of feeling, if it is in a body not formed and therefore deprived of all feeling."

At no point did I mean to suggest that St. Augustine, and the Church's other leading thinkers throughout the ages, did not consider abortion a grave sin. However, in trying to sort out whether abortion was murder, this writing indicates that he distinguished between an early procedure and one done later in a pregnancy.

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