On April 12, 2018, FemCatholic posted an article titled “Why We Shouldn’t Call Women Who’ve Had Abortions ‘Murderers’.” It has numerous good points regarding rhetoric and strategy, and includes several key distinctions that need to be well thought out before use of the term “murder” is employed in the abortion debate.
However, it also included this misleading proclamation concerning abortion’s definition: “Simply put, by definition, abortion is not murder. Murder, as defined by Oxford Dictionaries is “the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another…” Unfortunately, the law in the United States makes it legal to kill the unborn, therefore, abortion technically isn’t murder” [emphasis in original]. While the author of the post is correct that an Oxford Dictionary defined it that way, others do not (example), I doubt she would assert that the premeditated killing of innocent Jews during the Holocaust wasn’t murder because it was legal.
Regardless, no secular dictionary’s definition has anything to do with Catholic moral philosophy or dogmatic theology. Unfortunately, one commenter who agreed with the article’s statement asserted that, “No where does the Church teach that abortion is murder nor a mother who has undergone the procedure is a murderer.”
Now, while the wisdom of calling women murderers is certainly debatable, it is demonstrably the case that the Church teaches that abortion is murder.
The Catholic Church Teaches That Abortion Is Murder
First, in the section where it deals with abortion, the Catechism specifies that murder is not affected by legality: “Concern for eugenics or public health cannot justify any murder, even if commanded by public authority” (CCC 2268).
Second, the Catechism’s statement against abortion notes that the teaching comes from the first century and specifically cites sources in support of this assertion that clearly identify abortion with murder (see below): “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable” (CCC 2270).
Third, the following quotes of Church Fathers, Councils, Catechisms, and Popes from the 1st to the 21st century show that Church absolutely considers abortion murder (culpability and “degree” notwithstanding):
- Didache (2.2) – “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten.”
- Athenagoras (A Plea for the Christians, XXXV) – “We say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder.”
- Tertullian (Apology, IX) – “In our case, a murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from the other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth.”
- Minucius Felix (Octavius, 30) – “There are some women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels and thus commit a parricide before they bring forth. . . . To us it is not lawful either to see or hear of homicide.”
- St. Hippolytus (Refutation of All Heresies, 9.8) – “Women who were reputed to be believers began to take drugs to render themselves sterile, and to bind themselves tightly so as to expel what was being conceived, since they would not, on account of relatives and excess wealth, want to have a child by a slave or by any insignificant person. See, then, into what great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by teaching adultery and murder at the same time!”
- St. John Chrysostom (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans, Hom. XXIV) – “Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit? Where there are many efforts at abortion? Where there is murder before the birth? For even the harlot thou dost not let continue a mere harlot, but makest her a murderess also. You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevent its being born. Why then dost thou abuse the gift of God, and fight with His laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for child-bearing unto slaughter?”
- St. Jerome (Letters, 22:13) – “Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when, as often happens, they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder.”
- St. Basil (Letters and Select Works, Letter CLXXXVIII) – “The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. With us there is no nice enquiry as to its being formed or unformed. In this case it is not only the being about to be born who is vindicated, but the woman in her attack upon herself; because in most cases women who make such attempts die. The destruction of the embryo is an additional crime, a second murder.”
- Council of Trullo (Can. XCI) [Eastern] – “Those who give drugs for procuring abortion, and those who receive poisons to kill the fœtus, are subjected to the penalty of murder.”
- Catechsim of the Council of Trent (Q.XIII) – “Married persons, who by medicine either prevent conception, or procure abortion, are guilty of a most heinous crime, nothing less than a premeditated conspiracy to murder.”
- Pope Stephen V (Decree of Gratian, c. 20, C. 2, q.) – “That person is a murderer who causes to perish by abortion what has been conceived.”
- Pope Paul VI (Sacred Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith – Declaration On Procured Abortion, 13) – “Moreover, it is not up to biological sciences to make a definitive judgment on questions which are properly philosophical and moral such as the moment when a human person is constituted or the legitimacy of abortion. From a moral point of view this is certain: even if a doubt existed concerning whether the fruit of conception is already a human person, it is objectively a grave sin to dare to risk murder.”
- Pope Pius XI (Casti Connubii, 64) – ““However we may pity the mother whose health and even life is imperiled by the performance of her natural duty, there yet remains no sufficient reason for condoning the direct murder of the innocent.” Note that Pope Pius XI went on to cite the story of Cain, the first murderer, when he asserted that, “we must mention in the first place infants hidden in the mother’s womb. And if the public magistrates not only do not defend them, but by their laws and ordinances betray them to death at the hands of doctors or of others, let them remember that God is the Judge and Avenger of innocent blood which cried from earth to Heaven” (Casti Connubii, 67)
- Pope St. John Paul II (Evangelium Vitae, 58, 61) – “The moral gravity of procured abortion is apparent in all its truth if we recognize that we are dealing with murder” . . . “Christian Tradition-as the Declaration issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith points out so well-is clear and unanimous, from the beginning up to our own day, . . . as is clearly shown by the Didache . . . Athenagoras . . . Tertullian . . . Throughout Christianity’s two thousand year history, this same doctrine has been constantly taught by the Fathers of the Church and by her Pastors and Doctors.”
- Pope Francis (Vatican Address, Jun. 16, 2018) – ““I’ve heard that it’s fashionable, or at least usual, that when in the first few months of pregnancy they do studies to see if the child is healthy or has something, the first offer is: Let’s send it away, . . . the murder of children. … To get a peaceful life, an innocent is sent away.” (Vatican Address, Oct. 10, 2018) – “Getting rid of a human being is like resorting to a contract killer.”
Fourth, even if the words “abortion” and “murder” were never equated in uncertain terms (which they are), it is both unreasonable and tiresome to insist that the Church do so in every instance. The Church (also) clearly teaches that abortion is murder indirectly by the transitive principle (If A=B & B=C then A=C), and it does so in too many sources to list. To cite just one example, the Baltimore Catechism (Q. 1275 A.) says, “It is never lawful for any cause to deliberately and intentionally take away the life of an innocent person. Such deeds are always murder, and can never be excused for any reason, however important or necessary.” Such a description of murder certainly includes abortion.
Simply put, for Catholics abortion must be considered murder (dogma – not a dictionary – settles that issue), and if abortion is murder then those who cause an abortion are murderers (logic – not legality – proves this).
Having said that, the Church certainly recognizes various degrees of culpability based on knowledge, will, circumstances, etc. even concerning gravely immoral acts. This just means we must be very careful about assigning degree of guilt in these cases – it in no way calls into question the equation of abortion and murder. Nor does it elicit a universal rule about terminology.