Opposition to abortion is one of the clearest and oldest moral
preachings of the Roman Catholic Church; it dates back to the 1st
century. The destruction of the fetus, the church teaches, is a morally
indefensible attack on human life. The only exception is “indirect
abortion,” or abortion as an incidental byproduct of a necessary
attempt to save the mother's life. Ectopic pregnancy and cancer of the
uterus are grounds for indirect abortion. Rape and incest are not
exceptions, because the fetus conceived has the same right to life as
any other fetus.The Catholic view is based on a general respect for all human life, but
it does not depend exclusively on the belief that a separate human
being appears at the instant of conception. The teaching is that
precisely because no one knows when the soul enters the body , the baby-to-be should
be given the benefit of the doubt and be fully protected. One blunt
analogy: no one would think it morally correct to heave a grenade into
a room that is probably empty but just might have a human being in it,
so why destroy a fetus that might be a person?Some dissenters within the church, however, have zeroed in on this
element of doubt. For these Catholics, including a few theologians, the
primary questions are: When is a fetus a person, and how do we know it?
The implication, that there may be a brief period during which abortion
is licit, is not new in the church, though it has been a minor refrain
in Catholic theology and explicitly rejected many times by the Vatican.
An influential 17th century theologian named Torreblanca taught that
before the fetus is animated by the soul, a woman may have an abortion
if she is in danger of death or in danger of losing her reputation.
Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the medieval theologian-philosophers,
had opened the same door in the 13th century with his view that the
soul does not enter the body immediately upon conception. On the basis
of the sketchy biology of the era, theologians estimated that the soul
joined the body at the 40th day of pregnancy. Church law, for a long
period, offered different penalties for abortions before and after the
entry of the soul, though both kinds of abortion were considered wrong.
Citing these examples, the Rev. Charles Curran, professor of moral
theology at the Catholic University of America, argues that there is
room for the church to modify its stance on abortion, at least
concerning the first few weeks of life. That possibility, however, is unlikely.For the past two hundred years, the view that the embryo may not be
fully human has been in near total eclipse. All modern Popes have
opposed abortion from the instant of conception, and the Second Vatican
Council termed abortion “an unspeakable crime.” In recent years the
church has shown a willingness to cast a fresh eye at the morality of
nuclear war and capital punishment, a trend that may reinforce its
desire to protect embryonic life.