What did the saints really write about abortion?
Q: I've read people try to justify abortion by citing the writings of Sts. Aquinas and Augustine. How can they do that?
A: The argument that certain writings of Sts. Augustine and Aquinas are not consistent with the truth of Church teaching on the grave sinfulness of abortion is false. These saints taught the serious sinfulness of deliberate abortion and they believed that the child in the womb was human from the start. (See Anne B. Gardiner's article in the New Oxford Review, 2004.) In a published interview on the subject (National Catholic Reporter, Jan. 17, 2003), bioethics expert and professor Father Brian Johnstone, CSSR, stated, "There was never any question (in Augustine and Aquinas) of whether terminating a pregnancy was sinful, but rather what kind of sin it was in the early stages -- homicide or something else."
The tortuous logic of the claim originates in a 1970 article by Father Joseph F. Donceel, SJ. Father Donceel uses the medieval biology of St. Thomas Aquinas to question the arguments used by Catholics in support of the teaching identifying abortion as a killing of an innocent human being.
Father Donceel used the outdated biology to assert that in the first several weeks the fetus went through two prior stages, possessing first a vegetative soul then an animal soul, before becoming human. More recent arguments arising out of Father Donceel's musings have gone so far as to assert that no human person exists until the eighth month when the brain is developed to a point when it is capable of a certain level of knowledge.
However, in a refutation of Father Donceel's archaic analysis, David Granfield wrote that according to Thomistic philosophy a rational soul is infused at the moment of fertilization ("Abortion Decision," 1971).
Moreover, Germain Grisez ("Abortion: The Myths, the Realities and the Arguments," 1970) summarizes the whole issue when he states, "If St. Thomas had known about the specific and individual genetic uniqueness of the zygote which makes it biologically a living organism of the human species, he would have supported immediate animation." Grisez is referring to the point that human life begins at fertilization.
The history of the matter and the unbroken tradition condemning abortion is much clearer than those who challenge the Church on this issue would allow. In his book titled "Contraception," John T. Noonan reviews the historical evidence beginning with the very earliest writing we have, the Didache, and continuing on through the Letter of Barnabas from the early second century which holds, "You shall not kill the fetus by an abortion or commit infanticide." Referring to such documents and numerous other writings the testimony of history is so strong it leads Noonan to conclude, "The Christians taught that all life must be inviolate, and, using the terms the law reserved for the killing of adults, they charged that not only the destruction of existing life but the interruption of the life-giving process was homicide and parricide. They were led to attach sanctity not only to life but to the life-giving process."
First printed in the St. Louis Review, January 14, 2005.