Feminist Theological View on Abortion and Catholic Church


The word abortion has been abominable to Catholic Church for centuries and the theological views on abortion from catholic perspective always painted abortion as a heinous moral sin. In tracing the Christian antipathy on abortion in the church history, it become rather an ironic factor to observe that in the Mediterranean world in which Christianity appeared abortion was a familiar act. Soranos of Ephesus who was known for his erudition in medicine in Greco Roman world, discussed abortion in terms of two main genres of abortifacients, which destroys what has been conceived. In classical Greek philosophy both Plato and Aristotle have taken abortion as a way of preventing excess population. The depiction of abortion in Old Testament seems to be ambiguous with its twilight illustration in the scripture, but the Hellenic Jews had developed an opinion about it through Exodus 21.22. Where Hebrew had said that where a man is accidently causes an abortion “Life is given for life “only if the mother die, the Greek read “life is given for life “if the embryo is formed, so that an express penalty was provided for the abortion.

It is a clearly an evident fact that abortion is akin to moral decision making and this dichotomy has always been a complex one in catholic church. At the heart of church doctrine, the moral matters have a deep regard for one’s conscience. In the matter of abortion, we have to understand the position of Church has not been a static one it has been constantly changed over time. In order to understand the juridical view of Catholic Church that one has to comprehend how abortion has been viewed by canon law. As a matter of fact, that canon law should not be misunderstood as the purest form of law based on Ten Commandments. Instead of it evolves as church changes and the present form of code of canon law was released in 1983 and it reflects the values adopted by the church in Second Vatican Council. There are two laws that have been related to abortion in Canon Code. First one is the canon 1398 which states “A person who procures a complete incurs a lataesententiae (automatic) excommunication. Interestingly canon 1398 stands as the only canon which explicitly refers to abortion while canon 1329 has laid down a principle that could be applied to case of abortion in some specific, limited circumstances. The conventional view of Catholic Church became subject to many changes after the Vatican ii and it is not an exaggeration to admit the church approach to many mundane things have undergone progressive changes for past few decades. The church position regarding abortion has entered a new epoch since the Pope Francis made a declaration which enabled all priests in Sacrament in Penance to remit the penalty of excommunication for abortion. This position was made permanent by apostolic letter issued titled Misericordia et miserain 2016.

However, yet the modern understanding of the church on abortion as abominable sin has not been completely uprooted. In that context it should be useful to look at how feminist liberation theology has viewed abortion from a different narrative. Being a recently developed theological tradition which primarily brings counter narratives on traditional theological views, feminist theology has firmly established its position on abortion under framing woman as the victim. Being a pioneer in Feminist Theology Movement Carter Heyward has given an apt illustration on the feminist theological stances on abortion. She states

“Feminist liberation theologians look to earth and not to heaven for the activities of the divine among us. Moreover, we look especially to women’s lives for signs of God’s work in the world. We look primarily to women as that massive group of human beings who historically have been overlooked in the building of theological and moral systems”.

Unlike the conventional view propounded in Canon Law, which essentially gives a much empathy on preserving the life, feminist theological understanding on the validity of abortion is based on the individual moral choice. It further elucidates how strongly being the bearer of child woman shouldtake the relational, participatory, social requirements intrinsic to her life in the world both as a responsible self and as someone toward whom the society has a full range of economic and social responsibility, or should have a full range of economic and social responsibility.

The most interesting part of feminist theological reading on abortion is that it tends to give a special empathy on how woman’s life has been trampled by patriarchal hegemony so far. Feminist topologists have vehemently opposed to the traditional discourse that has always imprisoned women in the scope of mere morality. Carter Heyward has questioned the legitimacy of this morality as the moral order that abides women to be ethical or decides how she should maintain her sexual affairs is purely governed by males who possess freewill in their decision making. Especially the Church interpretation of considering the fetus as equal to full human life has been criticized by feminist’s theologians. While having admitted the supremacy of fetus as sacred as life itself, they have affirmed that the prenatal life cannot be given full human rights as they deserve the real oppressed people such as marginalized women, children, war victims who are continuing to suffer. Furthermore, this argument has been bulwarked by the position of woman as central figure in making decisions for themselves and the overarching role being played by men in legislative bodies and church have become subjected criticism by the feminist theological movement. I their dissent on male participation in making decisions regarding the legality or morality of abortion, they have firmly established the real discretion on deicing anything about the issue lies in the women as they are the real persons affected by the issue. Regardless the catholic idea of life begins from the moment of conception; feminist theologians have emphasized the importance of woman’s reason in making her moral choice. A pioneer in feminist movement in modern Christianity Teresa Forcades has stated a woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy should be recognized for what it is-a serious moral choice with roots in the sacred character of moral agency; the ability to choose on behalf of what we believe to be right or best in a concrete situation. The general idea on abortion in Vatican is still stuck in the old dogma of seeing conception as the beginning of life. Being admired by many for his progressive attitude toward many issues, Pope Francis has recently condemned legalizing abortion as hiring a hit man. In the context of Sri Lanka there is a strong dissent led by the catholic Church that government should not legalize abortion even when a pregnancy is due to rape, incest, or when the female is under the age of 16, or when there is serious fetal impairment. However, given the fact that conception is noble and pure, the arguments brought by feminist theologians should be taken into consideration as they are clearly grounded on practical reasoning. In short both right of the unborn child and the right of the woman who is carrying the fetus should be preserved. Nevertheless, a life belongs to a woman who has undergone a long serious of pain and suffering cannot be undermined by the good intention of protecting the unborn child at any cost.

( Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD candidate in international law at ScuolaS uperiore Sant Anna in Pisa, Italy and previously he held a research fellowship at Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia. )

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