The struggles of a catholic progressive

The Question of Abortion

I am primarily a “feminist” in the sense that I support the empowerment of female individuals to self-determination to the same degree that males have been empowered. Throughout history, there is no question that women have been limited in what they could do by social mores. It has only been in the recent past that women have been able to have the same opportunities for education, voting, owning property and many other things males take for granted. There continue to be feminist issues, such as equal pay for equal work. One of the major issues is that of women making their own health care decisions, which involves, among other things, the right to abortion as a medical procedure, for whatever reason the woman may deem necessary. The alternative, of having a group of mostly male legislators ruling the womb of a woman they don’t even know, is disgusting to me in a way few things are. The idea that an employer could hypothetically tell my wife whether we can have contraception as part of our medical insurance is beyond repugnant. I have never felt that it was my option to tell a woman to have an abortion, or pressure her to have an abortion, and have never been in the position of even thinking about advising a woman to end a pregnancy, thank the Lord. I have always felt that, understood correctly, Christianity would lead to the same stance on feminist issues. After all, St. Paul is the one who taught clearly that in Christ, there is no division between man and woman, Greek or Jew, slave or free. So it comes as a surprise to me to find that the early Church Fathers taught strongly against abortion in any event. Here are some examples:

The second commandment of the Teaching: “Do not murder; do not commit adultery”; do not corrupt boys; do not fornicate; “do not steal”; do not practice magic; do not go in for sorcery; do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant. (Didache, 1st c.)

Canon 68: If a catechumen should conceive by an adulterer, and should procure the death of the child, she can be baptized only at the end of her life. (Council of Elvira, AD 305)

Canon 21: Women who prostitute themselves, and who kill the child thus begotten, or who try to destroy them when in their wombs, are by ancient law excommunicated to the end of their lives. We, however, have softened their punishment and condemned them to the various appointed degrees of penance for ten years. (Council of Ancyra, AD 314)

In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the foetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man – killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in the seed. (Tertullian, Apologia, late 2nd / early 3rd c.)

What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God? For the same person would not regard the fetus in the womb as a living thing and therefore and object of God’s care [and then kill it]…. But we are altogether consistent in our conduct. We obey reason and do not override it. (Athenagoras, Legatio 35, late 2nd c.)

Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder. (Jerome, Epistle 22, late 4th c.)

She who has intentionally destroyed [the fetus] is subject to the penalty corresponding to a homicide. For us, there is no scrutinizing between the formed and unformed [fetus]; here truly justice is made not only for the unborn but also with reference to the person who is attentive only to himself/herself since so many women generally die for this very reason. (Basil the Great, To Amphilochios of Iconia, mid 4th c.)

…those who give the abortifacients and those who take the poisons are guilty of homicide. (Basil the Great, ibid.)

There are many other examples. I still believe that it is not in my purview to influence a woman who feels she needs an abortion one way or another – and so I simply present this as a matter of intellectual honesty, I can no longer argue a Christian foundation for believing that having an abortion is not murder in some sense. As a feminist, I still argue that those who have no interest in the health of the Mother also have no rights or duties to impose their will upon the Mother. Nevertheless, as a Christian who reads the teachings of the Church Fathers with great respect, I must admit that there is an early teaching that abortion is murder which I was not aware of previously. I realize I am walking a fine line here. Thankfully for me, I will never have to face that choice. Honestly, there is a part of me which must attribute the teachings above as a reflection of the culture of the times, in which women continued to be “second class citizens,” and the culture paternalistic in nature. Submitted for your consideration and comment.

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