The Consistency of Church Teaching on Abortion

Segment Three: The Consistency of Church Teaching on Abortion
Overview: Human life is sacred from the moment of conception to the time of natural death. From its earliest days to the present, the Church has consistently condemned abortion because it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human life made in the image and likeness of God. Church teaching on just war and capital punishment also seek to respect the value of life while recognizing the need for legitimate self defense.

The Ten Commandments say very clearly, “You shall not kill” (Ex 20:13, Dt5:17). Church teaching going back to the first century Didache condemns abortion, a practice that was very prevalent in ancient Greek and Roman times. The Second Vatican Council called abortion and infanticide “unspeakable crimes”.  Consistently, the Church has said procured abortion is a moral evil because it deliberately destroys an innocent human life made in the image and likeness of God. However serious or tragic the circumstances surrounding an abortion, no one can justify the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.

But as John Paul II reminds us in the Gospel of Life, “today, in many people’s consciences, the perception of its gravity has become progressively obscured”. (58) Growing public acceptance of abortion comes, in part, from our culture’s inability to distinguish between moral good and evil. Some feel abortion is justified if a mother’s  health or her family’s standard of living would be jeopardized. Others acknowledge many, or even most, abortions are wrong but are less objectionable if done early pregnancy, especially before implantation. Still another argument is that the Church is inconsistent in its teaching prohibition against killing because, in certain circumstances, it upholds the right to self-defense, just war, or capital punishment.

Church teaching is clear. The injunction “You shall not kill” has “absolute value when it refers to the innocent person” (57). John Paul II tells us this teaching should not cause surprise because, “to kill a human being in which the image of God is present, is a particularly serious sin. Only God is the master of life” (55). This call to protect innocent human life begins at the time the ovum is fertilized until the time of natural death. Newly conceived human life must be considered a human person because it is a human life distinct from the mother or father.

But what if the life in question is not innocent? How can the Church justify killing in the case of self-defense or a so-called “just war”? There is a long history of Church teaching in these matters based in part on the “intrinsic value of life and the duty to love oneself no less than others” (55) that would require a much longer discussion. The Gospel of Life does specifically address one contemporary issue of the killing of non-innocent human life. That is the issue of capital punishment.

The Church universally, nationally and locally has been in the forefront of efforts to abolish capital punishment. The Church teaches that society has a right to inflict punishment “to redress the disorder caused by an offense” (46). But, just as God “preferred the correction rather than the death of a sinner” (9) in the story of Cain and Abel, the Church today teaches that criminal punishment should not go so far as execution unless there is no other possible way to defend itself. John Paul II writes that such a situation is “very rare, if not practically non-existent” (56) in the modern world.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2263-2269
Catholic Campaign Against the Death Penalty:
Instruction on Respect for Human Life In Its Origin and the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day, (Donum Vitae), 
Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1987

Questions to Consider:

More than 400,000 unwanted embryos created by IVF are stored in cold storage tanks. Some argue these embryos should be “harvested” for stem cells for research purposes. Why does the Church oppose the killing of these embryos?
In your experience, do most Catholics consistently support Church teaching on both abortion and capital punishment?
Among its effects, the so-called “morning after pill” prevents a fertilized ovum from implanting in the uterus. Why does Church teaching against abortion also include opposition to this kind of “chemical” abortion?