The former head of Catholics for a Free Choice [sic], Frances Kissling, wrote recently at Feministe to express her disappointment with a new Missouri law that requires abortion facilities to offer ultrasounds and information on embryonic and fetal development to women seeking abortions.
Kissling is particularly incensed that the law will require abortion-bound women to be told these words:
The life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being.
Once again, a state legislature thinks it can settle a question that no philosopher, lawyer scientist or other expert has ever been able to figure out.
No One Knows When Life Begins?
It’s hard to say what’s more astonishing: the fact that Kissling — and make no mistake, she’s definitely not alone — actually says, with a straight face, that she doesn’t know when life begins, or the fact that in the abortion battle, pro-lifers who plainly acknowledge the bleeding obvious fact that life begins at conception are usually the ones portrayed in the media as somehow being “anti-science.”
Those words [“The life of each human being begins at conception…”] will be displayed “prominently” on brochures that abortion providers will be required to hand out to every woman seeking the procedure, reports StLouisToday.com.
The site adds that providers will need to display that information even if they don’t agree with the “Christian position.” In that brief phrase the most common misunderstanding about abortion is presented as fact. Of course, they meant to say the “Catholic” position and even that is wrong. The best kept secret about Catholicism and abortion is that the Catholic view of when the fetus becomes a person is precisely the same as that asserted in Roe v. Wade. Whatever definition one wants to posit about fetal personhood, the fact is nobody knows. To paraphrase Roe, the justices declared that science, law, philosophy and theology had not been able to answer this question and neither could the Supreme Court. If you read various Catholic documents, the same opinion emerges. Over the centuries theologians and popes have suggested when they think God might confer personhood on the fetus, and they have come up with different answers. When the fetus first moves, when it is 40 days old if it is a boy or 80 days old if it is a girl, when it is viable, when it can no longer split in two and become twins. But in the end the church says what the court says “We don’t know.”
If these words sound familiar, that’s because they’re notably similar to the infamous remarks made by Rep. Nancy Pelosi two years earlier in an interview on Meet the Press. Asked when human life begins, Pelosi replied:
I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition . . . St. Augustine said at three months. We don’t know. The point is, is that it shouldn’t have an impact on the woman’s right to choose.
The following day, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput set the record straight by responding [PDF] in high dudgeon to Pelosi’s comments:
Ardent, practicing Catholics will quickly learn from the historical record that from apostolic times, the Christian tradition overwhelmingly held that abortion was grievously evil. In the absence of modern medical knowledge, some of the Early Fathers held that abortion was homicide; others that it was tantamount to homicide; and various scholars theorized about when and how the unborn child might be animated or “ensouled.” But none diminished the unique evil of abortion as an attack on life itself, and the early Church closely associated abortion with infanticide. In short, from the beginning, the believing Christian community held that abortion was always, gravely wrong.
In other words, the argument put forth Pelosi and Kissling, et al., is nothing but a smokescreen.
Clarifying Aquinas’ Belief on Ensoulment
It’s also worth clarifying the X vs. Y number of days matter that Kissling alludes to in her post at Feministe, given its tendency to come up in discussions about the history of Church teaching on abortion.
What she is referring to is an opinion of St. Thomas Aquinas, which Catholic Answers’ Jimmy Akin addresses in an article titled “When Babies Get Their Souls”:
It is sometimes claimed that Thomas Aquinas believed that the unborn did not acquire a soul until several weeks after conception. This is not true. Aquinas believed that the unborn had a soul (a rational, human soul) from the time it was conceived. However, following Aristotelian science, he (and a few other Western writers) thought that conception was an extended process that did not finish until forty or ninety days into the pregnancy: “The conception of the male finishes on the fortieth day and that of the woman on the ninetieth, as Aristotle says in the IX Book of the Animals” (Aquinas, Commentary on III Sentences 3:5:2).
Aquinas was correct that the unborn receive their souls at conception; he was merely mistaken on when conception was finished, due to the science available. As modern medicine has shown, conception in humans occurs almost instantaneously, as soon as the sperm and the ovum unite.
Thus, the fact that Aquinas was wrong about the biology of conception is irrelevant to the issue of what the Church has taught about the morality of abortion — a teaching that has been nothing if not rock-solidly consistent for the last 2,000 years.
Archbishop Chaput summarizes why the attempts at obfuscation by Kissling, Pelosi, and their ilk are so despicable:
Of course, we now know with biological certainty exactly when human life begins. Thus, today’s religious alibis for abortion and a so-called “right to choose” are nothing more than that – alibis that break radically with historic Christian and Catholic belief.
Abortion kills an unborn, developing human life. It is always gravely evil, and so are the evasions employed to justify it. Catholics who make excuses for it – whether they’re famous or not — fool only themselves and abuse the fidelity of those Catholics who do sincerely seek to follow the Gospel and live their Catholic faith.
Regardless of how much self-styled “pro-choice” Catholics like Frances Kissling and Nancy Pelosi want us to believe that the Church allows wiggle room when it comes to abortion, they’re hopelessly wrong.
Just as modern biology allows us to know with certainty when life begins, so too even a basic understanding of Church history allows us to know with certainty that she has always taught that abortion is a grave sin.