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The May 11, 2017 New York Times carried a brief letter from Father Michael P. Orsi that is worth quoting here. Orsi objects to an earlier column (“A Christian Abortion Doctor” by Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, May 7) that said that Thomas Aquinas’ theology allowed for abortion. Orsi writes:

“In the Summa Theologica, his magisterial opus, the saint never writes directly on abortion but speculates on ensoulment for the fetus, which did not challenge the traditional prohibition [against abortion].

“Although there is no direct condemnation of abortion in the Bible or by Thomas, he was certainly aware of the scriptural roots of the anti-abortion teaching, as well as in the teachings of the church fathers, who unanimously condemned the practice.”

At first glance, Father Orsi’s remarks seem clear and straightforward. Aquinas and other leading Catholic theologians “unanimously” condemned abortion. End of story.

Saint Thomas Aquinas

At least Orsi was honest enough to admit that the Bible does not prohibit abortion — a fact that most anti-abortion zealots persistently refuse to acknowledge. But Father Orsi implies that Aquinas’ speculations on ensoulment of the fetus have nothing to do with questions of abortion; this is far from the truth. Virtually all Catholic theologians before the 19th century were interested in the question of ensoulment (the point at which a human soul enters the body of a fetus, usually thought to coincide with quickening) in large part because of its relationship to the question of abortion. For most of its history the Catholic church condemned termination of pregnancy only after ensoulment/quickening, but not before. In fact, most theologians didn’t even use the word “abortion” for the ending of pregnancy prior to quickening.

The use of the term “abortion” by early Catholic theologians was very different from the modern use. In fact, the vast majority of abortions in the U.S. today would not have been considered abortions by them, because they occur before quickening.

Several prominent clerics, nuns, and saints, including Thomas Sanchez, Albertus Magnus, Pope John XXI, Hildegard of Bingen, and Elizabeth of Hungary, themselves wrote positively of emmenagogues and early-stage abortifacients. Peter of Spain (later Pope John XXI) compiled a long list of abortifacients in his Book of the Poor, and Hildegard of Bingen promoted the abortifacient properties of tansy, which had not previously received scholarly attention.

The fact is, for close to 1900 years the majority of church writers and Canon lawyers accepted early abortion (approximately first trimester) under most circumstances and all abortion under some circumstances (such as when the life of the woman was threatened). Contrary to Father Orsi’s claim, Thomas Aquinas paid attention to ensoulment precisely because the timing of ensoulment was intimately tied to the question of when termination of pregnancy is an actual abortion. The later ensoulment was thought to occur, the longer the window for ending pregnancy without incurring religious censure.

In the chapter of my Sex and Herbs and Birth Control titled “A Little Bit Pregnant,” I discuss the diversity of opinions on termination of pregnancy among Catholic commentators through the ages. I note that present-day opponents of abortion are completely mistaken in their claims that the Church has implacably opposed all abortion at all stages of pregnancy from the time of Christ until now. But I say that the confusion is in some sense understandable, since definitions of abortion used in the past and at present are not the same, and the average anti-abortion zealot misstates the history out of ignorance rather than deliberate deception.

Father Orsi, however, is an eminent theologian who has written numerous books and articles on bioethics, Catholic family law, and related topics. He is not ignorant of the complex and nuanced stances of his predecessors. He must know full well that his Church did not categorically condemn all abortion under virtually all circumstances until 1869. One is forced to conclude that Father Orsi’s misleadingly worded letter is deliberately misstating the history of Catholic proscriptions on abortion. Father Orsi’s letter is, in fact, an excellent example of sophistry, that is, how to lie without lying.

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