by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
To help end confusion caused by recent misrepresentations of Church teaching on abortion by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities has issued a two-page fact sheet explaining that the Church’s position in defense of human life has never changed.
The document, entitled Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching, refutes claims made by Speaker Pelosi in an August 24 interview on Meet the Press where she tried to justify her pro-abortion position by saying the Church only recently came to the conclusion that human life begins at conception.
“This well documented fact sheet will help Catholics and others form their consciences in accordance with the Church’s unchanging teaching in defense of unborn human life,” said Deirdre McQuade, Assistant Director for Policy and Communications at the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.
The fact sheet begins with a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church which states: “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.” [CCC 2271]
It points out that from the earliest days of the Church, “Christians sharply distinguished themselves from surrounding pagan cultures by rejecting abortion and infanticide.” It cites documents from the first and second centuries, such as the Didache (the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) where abortion is explicitly condemned.
The document goes on to explain that early Christian thinkers generally drew from the biological writings of the fourth century philosopher Aristotle which taught that there was a period between the conception of the fetus and the reception of a soul in a process called “ensoulment.”
However, the fact sheet explains, “such mistaken biological theories never changed the Church’s common conviction that abortion is gravely wrong at every stage.”
During the interview, Speaker Pelosi claimed that St. Augustine did not believe life began at conception, implying that he may have believed abortion was acceptable up to a certain point in the pregnancy. However, this is not true.
“In the 5th century AD this rejection of abortion at every stage was affirmed by the great bishop-theologian St. Augustine,” the fact sheet explains. “He knew of theories about the human soul not being present until some weeks into pregnancy. Because he used the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, he also thought the ancient Israelites had imposed a more severe penalty for accidentally causing a miscarriage if the fetus was ‘fully formed’ (Exodus 21: 22-23), language not found in any known Hebrew version of this passage. But he also held that human knowledge of biology was very limited, and he wisely warned against misusing such theories to risk committing homicide.”
Even though Church law was often informed by ancient biological theories, and thus distinguished between late and early abortions, “abortion at all stages continued to be seen as a grave moral evil,” the fact sheet says.
It goes on to explain that after the advances of nineteenth century biology,”from 1869 onward the obsolete distinction between the ‘ensouled’ and ‘unensouled’ fetus was permanently removed from canon law on abortion.”
“Modern science,” the fact sheet insists, “has not changed the Church’s constant teaching against abortion, but has underscored how important and reasonable it is, by confirming that the life of each individual of the human species begins with the earliest embryo.”
The fact sheet says that the Church’s opposition to abortion rests upon the principle that “each and every human life has inherent dignity, and thus must be treated with the respect due to a human person.” Claiming that some living human beings should not be treated as persons because of changeable factors like “age, condition, location, or lack of mental or physical abilities,” is to deny that there is such a thing as inherent human worth.
“Such a claim undermines respect for the lives of many vulnerable people before and after birth,” the fact sheet concludes.
The fact sheet can be read at http://www.usccb.org/prolife/constantchurchteaching.shtml
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