Religious Traditions B Roman Catholic Perspectives

The following is a revision and update of the first edition entry "Abortion: Roman Catholic Perspectives" by John R. Connery. The Roman Catholic tradition has always treated abortion as a serious sin. Yet Catholic teaching on abortion has not always centered on the "right to life" of the individual fetus, nor has it always viewed all abortion as homicide. For several centuries, early abortion in particular was characterized more as a sexual sin than as killing, and was condemned as an interference in the natural outcome of the reproductive process, often assuming as its context an illicit sexual liaison.

The fact that Catholic views of the precise status of the fetus as human life have changed over time and that the church's position has a philosophical rather than a religious basis are key to late-twentieth-century church teaching on abortion. That teaching is that the fetus must be given the benefit of the doubt, and be treated as if it were a person from conception onward. This teaching is not stated as a sectarian religious proposition, but as a humanistic and philosophical truth to be recognized in civil laws guaranteeing appropriate protection to fetal life. Although exhortations to protect life in the womb have often been supported with religious allusions (for instance, to the will of the Creator or to the image of God in humanity), the duties to continue pregnancy and to sustain infants have been grounded primarily in the "natural law," understood as a shared human morality innate to all persons and knowable by reason.

In examining the foundations and development of the Catholic position, it is important to place modern teaching in the context of changing views of women's roles in family and society. Other factors influencing debates about Roman Catholicism and abortion are the relation of scientific knowledge about the beginnings of human life to the moral status of life; the relation among civil law, morality, and the church as an institutional actor; and contraception and population, especially in international perspective.

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