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Roe vs Wade: The Bishops’ dilemma

  • 26 May 2022
News leaked earlier this month that the US Supreme Court plans to overturn its most famous decision, that in Roe vs Wade (1973) which protects a pregnant woman's freedom to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. The decision has attracted much criticism both in the past and now on account of its dubious legal reasoning – in particular, its attempt to link the right to abort to a right to privacy which itself was notional and not specified in the US Constitution.

Critics of Roe vs Wade argue that it is undemocratic, removing the majority’s right to reach its own consensus on the moment that life begins and a new human, with his or her own rights, comes into being.

Defenders point to the moral wrongheadedness of denying the individual the right to determine her own answer to that fundamental question about our existence. They also point to the obvious inequalities that flow from allowing some women easier access to abortion than others. The poor will almost certainly suffer disproportionately in states that ban abortion or restrict it significantly (and they may suffer elsewhere, even beyond the US).

Such are the arguments in the secular public sphere. But what about the ecclesiastical one? We all know that the Catholic Church now opposes abortion absolutely. Pius XI set out the current position in his encyclical Casti connubii (1930) and Paul VI affirmed it in Humanae vitae (1968).

Current papal policy has not, of course, always been the Church’s settled position. Medieval theologians, for instance, developed a somewhat more nuanced ethics of abortion which used Aristotle to distinguish between ‘animated’ and ‘unanimated’ foetuses (i.e. those in which the soul was present or not).

Sixtus V was the first pope to define all abortions unequivocally as homicide, but his bull Effraenatam (1588) was overturned by Gregory XIV just a couple of years later. Gregory reasserted the older view that aborting a pre-animate foetus was not true homicide because no foetus should be considered a human being before ensoulment.

'If Roe vs Wade is overturned it will be fascinating to watch how the Church negotiates abortion’s return as a live issue in one of Catholicism’s most important spaces — and one of its frontlines in on-going conflicts between religion and secularism.'

The Church’s view on abortion ethics has thus always been subject to debate and evolution. Indeed, the current moment is in some ways an anomaly facilitated by