When the Vatican Was Pro-Choice

“Fetal assault. Chemical endangerment of a fetus. Manslaughter. Second-degree murder. Feticide. Child abuse. Reckless injury to a child. Concealing a birth. Concealing a death. Neglect of a minor. Reckless homicide. Attempted procurement of a miscarriage.”

These are charges being brought against some women for seeking or having had an abortion in some states in America today.

The above list is a direct quote from the New York Times Special Section: Report on a Woman’s Right, dated January 20 of this year. The Times added, “More and more laws are treating the fetus as a person and the woman as less of one as states charge pregnant women with crimes.” I’m glad and grateful that their editorial board actually gets it. In fact, if we are not both vigilant and active, we will be back at square one with women dying by the thousands every year in back-alley butchered abortions.

Furthermore, the moment a state government acts to ensure this won’t happen in their state, anti–choice religionists pounce.

Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law one of the most expansive reproductive rights bills in US history, and no sooner had the ink dried than some prominent Catholics began urging Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York to declare Cuomo excommunicated. Three decades ago, New York Cardinal John O’Connor tangled with Andrew’s father, then Governor Mario Cuomo, over the same issue. Then as now, both father and son governors just shrugged, and neither cardinal acted.

US bishops have responded inconsistently to pro-choice Catholic politicians. San Francisco Archbishop Cordileone said publicly that politicians who favor legal abortion, like Nancy Pelosi, should be denied communion—but other archbishops, like Washington’s recently retired Donald Wuerl, have loudly disagreed. Pope Francis is perceived as a social liberal, but on abortion he stands with the current Church position forbidding any pregnancy termination for any reason, and he has likened abortion to ”hiring a hitman to resolve a problem.” So much for social liberalism that refuses to include the rights of humanity’s female half. 

When, above, I referred to “current Church position” on reproduction and abortion, I meant just that. It’s time to revisit a little history instead of continuing to wander around untruths, half-truths, and outright lies. I confess that I will plagiarize these historical facts below from the well-researched book, Fighting Words: A Tool Kit for Combating the Religious Right, published a few years ago and written by . . . well, me. (After all, if you can’t plagiarize from yourself, who can you plagiarize from?) Fighting Words is in print as a paperback, intentionally small enough to fit into your pocket and then wield in arguments, and is also available as an e-book in all formats. I did my best in compiling factual ammunition to combat the widespread ignorance most of us have been raised with regarding abortion (and a few other subjects). For example:

1. There is no mention of abortion as a crime or as a woman’s right in the United States Constitution. This is because: A) there is no mention of women in the Constitution, and B) abortion was both legal and commonly practiced at the time.

2. There is no mention of abortion in the Bible. There are as many as 600 Mosaic laws but not a single one comments on abortion. Jewish law traditionally considers that life begins at birth.

3. The history of the Roman Catholic Church’s position—from which all current US anti-choice extremist Christian positions derive—is not what you think. Today’s Vatican denounces even the words “reproductive health” as unacceptable in official UN documents—in case anyone might construe them to include the already deleted word “abortion”—and although the Vatican is a non-voting so-called “State” at the UN, it is a highly effective lobbying force continuously purging all UN documents of such language. It works on this in brotherly coalition with Islamists and Protestant fundamentalists; apparently, convenient patriarchal alliances against women override pesky little memories like, say, the Crusades.

It comes as a shock to most people that the Catholic Church’s fierce opposition to abortion was not always what it is today, because the Church pretends that its position on pregnancy termination has been based on a “right to life” and has remained unchanged for 2000 years. Poppycock. In fact, it has varied continually over the course of history, with no unanimous opinion on the subject at any one time.

In 400 C. E., Augustine expressed the then-mainstream view that early abortion required penance only for any sexual aspect of a sin, not as homicide; 800 years later Thomas Aquinas substantially agreed. (Pssst: the Church made them both saints.)

Between 1198 and 1216, Pope Innocent III ruled abortion as “not irregular” if the fetus was not “vivified” or ”animated”; animation was then considered 80 days for a female and 40 days for a male—male fetuses apparently could develop faster then slow-poke female ones. Oddly, it has never been explained how anyone in the 12th century could tell sex differences in the womb. Or was there some early version of ultrasound back then that historians somehow missed?

Pope Sixtus V forbade all abortions in 1588, but in 1591 Pope Gregory XIV rescinded that order, and reestablished permission to abort, this time equalizing things a bit: up to 40 days for either a male or a female fetus.

Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence (also now sanctified), was a 15th century Dominican who wrote a major treatise on abortion, in which he taught that early abortion to save a woman’s life was moral.

Thomas Sanchez a 17th-century Jesuit, noted that all his Catholic theologian contemporaries justified abortion to save the life of the woman. 

It was as late as 1869—only about a century and a half ago—that Pope Pious IX ruled all abortion murder and defined it as excommunicable.

And therein, my friends, lies a tale.

Napoleon III was gravely concerned that the birth rate had been dropping and that France would face a serious depletion of soldiers for its wars and colonizations. Pius IX, for his part, had long yearned to pass a doctrine of papal infallibility—but had faced opposition from within the church as well as from external kings, czars, and the like. But Napoleon was an emperor.

So the two struck a deal.

In return for Napoleon’s powerful support for papal infallibility, Pius would change the Church’s regulation of abortion—which at that time forbade the procedure only after quickening, at about three months. But Pius, a shrewd bargainer, played hard to get. So Napoleon threw in a further inducement—that all teaching positions in French schools would thereafter be filled by the Church.


Napoléon would get his huge crop of babies to grow into cannon fodder, because the Vatican would outlaw all abortion. In return, Pious and all popes after him would get their infallibility plus Roman Catholic control of French children’s minds (and those of kids in colonies around the world) for generations to come. Women’s deaths, by now in the millions because of this bargain, would pay the price. But hey, the art of the deal.

Interestingly enough, however, and also contrary to popular belief, the prohibition of abortion is not governed by claims of papal infallibility. This leaves far more room for discussion than is usually assumed. Some Jesuit historians have actually been honest about this history.

There’s much richer detail in the book, Fighting Words, but above you have an outline of the abortion chapter. Such crucial history gets buried for a reason. Which could lead us to wonder: if this issue is not governed by infallibility, and if the Church position itself has been flexible, and if there is no mention of forbidding abortion in the Bible or the Constitution, then just how and why does this issue continue to be so explosive in discussing women’s basic human right to bodily self-determination? And, for that matter, to the foundational concept that defines America: the separation of church and state?