The Catholic Church and Abortion

Can abortion be justified by Catholics in any situation?

The question of whether Roman Catholic women may undergo an abortion, or whether others may collaborate in this, is quite complex.



1. On the one hand, the official Catholic teaching authority still proclaims that abortion is wrong in all circumstances and from the moment of conception.

The Church’s teaching on abortion “is unchanged and unchangeable. Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his successors . . . I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium. No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.”
(Pope John Paul II, 1995, Evangelium Vitae, § 62).

This opinion is shared by organizations such as the various Pro Life movements.

2. On the other hand, many Catholic theologians and pastoral workers believe that there are extreme cases in which abortion is allowed for Catholics.

This view is promoted by movements such as Catholics for Choice.

What to make of this in practical life? Without going into too many details, I will try to spell out what seems to me responsible guidelines

A look at the traditional position

Reason 1. “We should respect the dignity of every single human life.”
YES to this!

The traditional view is inspired by the truly Christian principle that the life of every single individual should be respected. This is an important principle that should be kept in mind at all times. The body of every person should be treated as a marvel of God’s creation.

For this reason, Catholics obviously could not possibly justify cases such as these:
*** the killing of foetuses in the womb when they are found to be female, as is being done in China, India and some other countries;
*** the termination of pregnances purely because it is inconvenient to the mother, to her career or social standing, as happens so casually in Western countries;
*** such abortions are all the more deplorable if the foetus is in the last months of pregnancy.

Reason 2. “A foetus is a human person from the moment of its conception.”
NO to this!

This view ultimately derives from the old Greek concept that held that the future human being is already contained in the male sperm. When the male seed has been successfully ‘planted’ in the soil of the female womb, they thought, it is already in essence a full human being. To see this concept explained in five diagrams, start here. In the light of modern science, it is clear that this opinion fails on many counts.

Theologians, from the Fathers of the Church to the Middle Ages, debated whether God infused a human soul at conception or some time later ‘when the foetus had been more fully formed’. In recent years the teaching authority has distanced itself from resolving this question, saying that it makes no difference to its rigid view:

“Throughout Christianity’s two thousand year history, this same doctrine of condemning all direct abortions has been constantly taught . . . Even scientific and philosophical discussions about the precise moment of the infusion of the spiritual soul have never given rise to any hesitation about the moral condemnation of abortion.”
(Pope John Paul II, 1995, Evangelium Vitae, § 61).

Reason 3. “Abortion goes against Natural Law which does not allow any exceptions.”
NO to this!

At present, the official Catholic teaching authority hangs many of its sexual prohibitions on its interpretation of so-called Natural Law. This interpretation has been shown to be flawed, as is explained in a description of its origin and past applications.

In the case of abortion, why could there be no exceptions? The principle says that we may not kill a human life. But we do make exceptions in case of self defence, of a soldier killing an enemy combatant in war, of an executioner putting to death a criminal who has been legitimately condemned to capital punishment.

The argument that a foetus in the womb is innocent is not valid. It is not always a question of personal intention. An enemy soldier may be personally innocent and still a danger that needs to be eliminated. A foetus may threaten its mother’s life.


While the traditional view is right in stressing the need to uphold the principle of respect for every human life, it is wrong in considering a foetus a human person from the moment of conception and in claiming there can be no legitimate exceptions.


So what could be the exceptional cases in which Catholics could justify terminating a pregnancy?

Many Catholic theologians now agree that terminating a pregnancy, especially an early one, may be allowed, or may even be the preferred option, in some extreme circumstances. I stress extreme.

Of course, I re-iterate: if the foetus in the womb is already well formed and has the potential to be born properly, everything possible should be done it save it.

But here are some extreme cases that have been documented, but remember that this is just a sample. Every situation is unique and not all eventualities are included here.

  • Pregnant women whose lives, as well as that of the future child, are both at risk because of their being pregnant. Terminating the pregnancy, however fatal for the foetus, might perhaps save the mother.
  • Women, and especially young girls, who have been raped during war and are who are psychologically unfit or materially unable to have the child. Terminating an early pregnancy here might. sometimes. prove the only viable option.
  • Immature or mentally handicapped girls who cannot give birth to a healthy child or sustain a child in life if there is no other option. If at all possible, of course, an alternative solution should be found such as adoption.
  • Women with an ectopic pregnancy, that is a foetus growing in a Fallopian tube and not in the womb.

Medical staff, social workers, parents and relations, as well as, of course, the pregnant women themselves may, or perhaps even should, in such circumstances consider terminating the pregnancy.
It should be stressed that in each case the ultimate guide should be a person’s informed and well considered conscience.

The primacy of each person’s own conscience has been laid down by the Church at the Second Vatican Council, Religious Liberty, § 2; The Church in the Modern World, § 16.

John Wijngaards

See: correspondence about abortion