A Brief on Abortion

Science and the Church teach when human life begins

The first recorded evidence of induced abortion is from the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus dated to 1550 BC. The only evidence in ancient laws of a death penalty for abortion is found in Assyrian law: the Code of Assura, c. 1075 BC. The epic Ramayana, c. 750BC, has a description of the practice of abortion done by the surgeons or barbers of those days. Circa 500 BC, Plato’s Theaetetus mentions a midwife’s ability to induce abortion in the early stages of pregnancy, and Hippocrates records certain herbs for that purpose.

Rabbis have debated the subject for centuries, and apparently a liberal interpretation prevails today. Turning to the Church: St. Augustine, a fourth-century bishop and Doctor of the Church, ended any equivocation by decreeing abortion at any stage of gestation a grave error (sin). Nine centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas conjectured that ensoulment occurs not at the moment of conception but some time later in gestation — a view now widely regarded as bound by the science of the time. In any case, Aquinas taught, and the Church teaches and has always taught, that life must be protected from the moment of conception, regardless of when ensoulment occurs.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “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” (#2271).

In our time, scientists have confirmed Catholic doctrine on the existence of a human being from the moment of conception. Dianne N. Irving, in When Do Human Beings Begin (1999), describes the biology: “The fusion of the sperm (with 23 chromosomes) and the oocyte (with 23 chromosomes) at fertilization results in a live human being, a single-cell human zygote, with 46 chromosomes, characteristic of an individual member of the human species. A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e. embryo).”

Of course there is a religious divide on the subject. A 2014 Pew Research poll found Jews and Buddhists expressed 83% approval of abortion; Hindus stood at 68%; Catholics, Mainline Protestants, Muslims, and Orthodox ranged between 48 and 60%; and Evangelicals, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses ranged from 18 to 33%. Members of all religions have committed abortions, despite official condemnation. Buddhists do not believe in an afterlife or God, so their attitude is understandable. Many Jews appear to deny belief in pertinent Old Testament passages such as Psalm 139:13, Jeremiah 1:5, and Isaiah 44:24.

The U.S. political divide is familiar. The commandment “Thou shall not kill” is a bedrock of our civilization. What about killing unborn humans? Fetal homicide laws in the U.S. differ by state: Alabama is the most severe, and California is the most lenient. Texas and ten other Bible Belt states have enacted “heartbeat” laws banning abortion after cardiac activity at six weeks. Recently passed bills banning nearly all abortions come close to complying with the now-confirmed fact that human conception begins at fertilization. This June the U.S. Supreme Court will decide the Dobbs case, which could give law-making on abortion back to the 50 states.

What would Jesus say? The New Testament makes no report of Christ condemning abortion or other deadly acts. But changing only one word of Christ’s great commandment to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 21:31) gives us “Love thy fetus as thyself.” Nothing vague about that.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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