Cherishing Life, the Bishops’ 2004 document on the moral and spiritual well-being of the human person in society, offers clear definitions of subjects concerned with the dignity of life from conception to natural death.
Serious reflection on abortion, as on other issues, should start by considering the physical realities of what is done and to whom. The first victim of abortion is the unborn child whose life is ended deliberately. Though it is performed with all the appearances of medical care, and surrounded by euphemisms, termination of pregnancy is the termination of a human life. Taking the life of a child in the womb is as unjust to the unborn child as taking the life of a new born baby is to the infant. The fact that the child is totally dependent on his or her mother, and that the termination is done with the consent of the child’s mother, makes it more dreadful, not less. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, both abortion and infanticide are ‘abominable crimes’ (The Church in the Modern World, paragraph 51). For this reason, the law of the Church establishes that a person who actually procures an abortion, fully aware of what they are doing, incurs the penalty of excommunication that can only be rescinded through the Sacrament of reconciliation.
Having acknowledged the unborn child, recognition should be given to the difficult circumstances that expectant mothers sometimes find themselves in, and also to the responsibilities of others. The doctor, the father, the employer, the family, the Church and wider society are all involved directly or indirectly in different ways and each has responsibilities. There may be financial or other pressures, and those around the expectant mother may fail to give her the support she needs and deserves. A boyfriend, parent or friend may even try to push her into terminating the pregnancy. ‘Sometimes the woman is subjected to such strong pressure that she feels psychologically forced to have an abortion.’ (The Gospel of Life, paragraph 59). In such cases the woman would be much less blameworthy for her decision.
In a secondary sense, the woman is also a victim for she loses her child, but is unable to grieve effectively. The Church ‘does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even a shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed.’ (The Gospel of Life, paragraph 99) There are other people who share the blame for what happened, but it is the woman herself who must live with the consequences. Post-abortion trauma is common and in some cases severe, though those who feel guilt and remorse are in a healthier state than those who never allow themselves to grieve or to feel guilty. The Church wishes to protect the lives of unborn children and also to support expectant mothers so they do not feel forced to make such a harmful choice. The Church welcomes women who feel remorse over an abortion and who come seeking forgiveness, reconciliation and absolution. As a result of such experiences some have been able to become ‘among the most eloquent defenders’ of everyone’s right to life.
There is an important distinction to be made between abortion, in which a living human being is destroyed, and contraception, in which no human being is conceived: ‘contraception and abortion are specifically different.’ (The Gospel of Life, paragraph 13) They are, however, closely connected, ‘as fruits of the same tree’. This distinction is clear in the case of barrier methods, but it has become blurred by forms of so-called contraception which work in part by preventing the embryo from implanting in the womb and which, in moral terms, are abortifacients. The ‘morning after pill’ relies primarily on this effect. People of good will should do whatever they can to avoid killing the innocent, and should therefore avoid using or selling drugs that work by destroying human beings once they have been conceived. They should also demand that pharmaceutical companies be honest and explicit in saying how their drugs achieve their effects so that the public can make properly informed decisions.