Catholic teaching holds that abortion is always immoral. This is a strongly held position and dates back to the earliest days of the Church. For example, the Didache, the earliest known book of basic instructions for Christians, contains a prohibition against abortion. One of the distinctive features of the earliest Christian community was its strong stance against abortion and infanticide as practiced within the Roman empire.
The Catholic position on abortion is based on the following principles:
1. The life of an embryo is consistent with the life of a fetus which is consistent with the life of a newborn baby. No change in being ever takes place. Life is therefore “human” from the moment of conception onward.
2. Not only is the embryo a human life; he or she is also an innocent life. The embryo or fetus has no intention to hurt anyone. He or she does not even choose to be born. A basic moral principle prohibits the taking of an innocent life.
3. In addition to being human and innocent, embryonic and fetal life is also powerless and vulnerable. Christians bear a special responsibility to protect the rights of the powerless, whether born or unborn.
4. Since the embryo is human, he or she is created by God with both body and soul. Recent Catholic teaching asserts that the soul is with the body from the moment of conception. It acknowledges that there’s no absolute proof as to when the soul enters the body. But it also realizes that there is no absolute proof that the soul does NOT enter the body at conception. Since it is a grave sin even to risk murdering a human person, the Church prohibits abortion at any stage in the life of a pregnancy.
5. While the Church would uphold a woman’s right to care for her own body, it does not see the fetus as a part of her body. Once conceived, the fetus is a separate, unique, human person. The right of this individual, innocent life to be born trumps the woman’s rights with respect to her own body.
6. When the conditions surrounding a pregnancy occasion a threat to the mother’s life, the teaching of the Church is that both lives are sacred and that every effort should be made to save both the fetus and the mother. In certain circumstances, what is sometimes termed an “indirect abortion” is permitted. For example, if a pregnant woman develops a cancer in the womb it is acceptable to remove the cancer even if there is no way to avoid the removal of the fetus. This is allowed because the direct intent is not to remove the fetus but to remove the cancer. No DIRECT abortion is ever permitted in Catholic teaching.
7. Abortions which occur as the result of a threat to the mother’s life or where conception was caused by rape or violent incest appear to represent a very small percentage of the total abortions in the United States(perhaps around 3%). One can only feel compassion for a woman in such circumstances. A Catholic’s response should never be one of judgment or condemnation but rather of support for the mother, both in reconciling her to the Church and in helping her to escape the conditions that left her in such a tragic situation.
8. Catholics have been evolving in recent years toward the “consistent ethic of life” position first articulated by Cardinal Joseph Bernadin when Archbishop of Chicago in 1983. This position holds that Catholics are called upon to protect life from conception until natural death, and includes opposition to unjust war, capital punishment, euthanasia, and the assaults on human life and dignity created by unjust economic and political conditions. A “consistent ethic of life” informed John Paul II’s encyclical letter “The Gospel of Life” as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church.