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.