On May 25, Irish citizens will vote on a referendum on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution. The Eighth Amendment, which bans abortion except when the life of the mother is at risk, is the last vestige of Catholic Ireland to be enshrined in law. The fact that it has survived so long is testament to the strength of the Church’s foundations in that verdant island. The Catholic Church has so totally conditioned attitudes toward abortion in Ireland that in order to smash the Eighth, abortion proponents have had to construct a parody Church—complete with false but plausible doctrine and a false but plausible history.
A false account of the Catholic Church’s historic stance on abortion has been in circulation for decades. There is an astroturf anti-Catholic organization, “Catholics” for Choice, funded by plutocratic foundations, dedicated to its dissemination. Legislators use its briefings, news programs interview its spokespersons, and advertising campaigns carry its expensive posters. A devious blend of fact and fiction, the false history of the Catholic Church and abortion goes like this:
The Catholic Church has not always totally condemned abortion. In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas speculated that male embryos became ensouled at 40 days and female embryos became ensouled at 80 days. The Church came to prohibit abortion only in the nineteenth century.
This lie is peddled frequently by Patsy McGarry, the religious affairs correspondent for the Irish Times. McGarry has written: “The Catholic Church’s current position on abortion was established only 143 years ago, in 1869[, when] Pope Pius IX outlawed abortion from the moment of conception.” On another occasion, McGarry wrote: “For the greater part of its 2,000 year history until 1869, [the Church] taught that no homicide was involved if abortion took place before the foetus was infused with a soul.” Again: “Some of the greatest theologians in the Christian tradition … taught that ensoulment took place at ‘quickening,’ when the mother detected the child move inside her womb for the first time.” All this sounds plausible. But it is a tissue of half-truths and falsehoods.
The Catholic Church’s total and constant prohibition on abortion dates back to its earliest days. The Didache, which dates from the first century, contains a stern admonition never to murder a child, born or unborn. As to the notion that abortion before “ensoulment” was considered licit by the Church: The notion of delayed ensoulment was based on the erroneous biology of Aristotle and a mistranslation of the Old Testament (Exodus 21:22). And no one in Aquinas’s day considered it an argument in favor of early abortion.
Aquinas, like Sts. Augustine and Jerome before him, opposed abortion without exception. Lacking modern medical knowledge, these doctors of the Church did not construe abortion before animation as homicide in the strict sense—but they condemned it as a grave wrong and as akin to homicide.
At the heart of the false history of the Church is the appeal to medieval speculations about the ensoulment of the fetus. This is the reddest of herrings, for ensoulment has never been a teaching of the Church. The utility of the theory in canon law was a matter of separating a gravely sinful action—early abortion—from an excommunicable sinful action—later abortion.
Hence, from 1591 until 1869, the penalty of excommunication applied to abortions procured on an “animated foetus”—that is, a fetus more than 40 days old in the case of males, more than 80 in the case of females. In 1869, Pius IX imposed the penalty of excommunication for abortions procured at any point, from conception onward. Prior to 1869, however, abortions procured prior to 40 or 80 days had still been considered gravely sinful. As St. Basil put it, “the woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder; with us there is no hairsplitting distinction as to its being formed or unformed.”
The “ensoulment” myth is an example of false history and one well suited to our times—disseminated by the mendacious and relied upon by Catholics who want to have their cake and eat it too. Its persistence tells us a great deal about modern preoccupations, and nothing at all about the past.
Catherine Lafferty is a journalist in London.