Pro-life Ethical Questions
In Roger Pearson’s book, “Shockley on Eugenics and Race,” Shockley says, “Thomas Aquinas’ conclusion that abortion of an early foetus is not murder,” and again, “that the foetus in a pregnant woman does not become a human being before several months of life,” was startling to me. If what Shockley says is true, how are we as Catholics to reconcile this with Church teaching?
We can reconcile it by pointing out that while St. Thomas, relying on the biology of Aristotle, thought that the soul was not infused into the body until 40 days after conception, he always taught that abortion was a grave evil. And that has been the constant teaching of the Church for two millennia. In its 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith offered this summary of early Church teaching against abortion:
In the course of history, the fathers of the Church, her pastors, and her doctors have taught the same doctrine – the various opinions on the infusion of the spiritual soul did not cast doubt on the illicitness of abortion. It is true that in the Middle Ages, when the opinion was generally held that the spiritual soul was not present until after the first few weeks, a distinction was made in the evaluation of the sin and the gravity of the penal sanctions. In resolving cases, approved authors were more lenient with regard to that early stage than with regard to later stages. But it was never denied at that time that procured abortion, even during the first days, was objectively a grave sin. This condemnation was in fact unanimous.
It is enough to cite some from among the many documents. The First council of Mainz in 847 reconsiders the penalties against abortion which had been established by preceding councils. It decided that the most rigorous penance would be imposed “on women who procure the elimination of the fruit conceived in their womb.” The Decree of Gratian reports the following words of Pope Stephen V: “That person is a murderer who causes to perish by abortion what has been conceived.” St Thomas (Aquinas), the common doctor of the Church, teaches that abortion is a grave sin against the natural law (n.7).
Homiletic & Pastoral Review, June 2001, p. 63