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Frances Kissling

Can a Catholic Be Pro-Choice?

In all my years of trying to change the Catholic Church’s position on abortion, it is anti-abortion Catholics’ unwillingness to really answer the hard questions that is most disturbing, as is their unwillingness to state the real complexity of Catholic history and positions on the issue of the moral status of the fetus. Especially troubling is the complete refusal to acknowledge some core principles of social justice and Catholic moral ethics that support a pro-choice position on abortion.

This is not an abstract matter. As Catholics we are concerned about poor and marginalized people. Illegal abortions—many of which occur in the developing world—can cause grave harm to women’s health, including sterility, infection, and other injuries. Occasionally even today, women end up in jail for having had illegal abortions. None of these outcomes can be considered good for women or children, and none should be ignored by the Catholic bishops when they seek to understand the morality of abortion.

It was my concern for flawed Church teaching against contraception and my passion for women’s rights that led to me to work to provide women in the U.S. with safe and dignified abortion services. As a Catholic, I spent lots of time studying, reflecting, and thinking about how to reconcile a pro-choice position with my Catholic heritage. Here is what I learned.

What you hear from priests and bishops is that the Catholic position on abortion has been the same throughout history, that we believe that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception and that to have an abortion is to kill a person. But that is not precisely correct. Even a conservative Catholic theologian who is being careful and had no political motive would not say that. An honest conservative theologian would say, “Theologically, we do not know when the fetus becomes a person, but since we do not know, we should err on the side of caution and not permit abortion.” I hold that even that is only about one-tenth of the story about Catholic thought on women, fetuses, and abortion.

Complexity and Choice

I want to demonstrate that Church positions on moral decision making and abortion are more complex than believed. There is much room in Catholic theology for the acceptance of policies that favor legal access to the full range of reproductive health options, including contraception and abortion. There are even principles that challenge the notion that abortion is always immoral.

Even within the hierarchy, the teaching on abortion has not been static. The tradition of evolving doctrine and questions as to when life begins all point to a more fluid understanding of the morality of abortion than public rhetoric suggests. 

Church reasoning about abortion has changed over time 

While the Church has always maintained that procured abortion is wrong, its reasoning for opposing it has changed. During the first century, when the debate over abortion was just beginning, it centered on two questions: (1) Was abortion being used to conceal the sins of fornication and adultery? and (less prevalent at the time) (2) Does the fetus have a soul from the moment of conception, or does it become “ensouled” at a later point? Modern Church leaders understand that making the argument in the twenty-first century that abortion should be prohibited because it is the result of illicit sex is likely to completely dismissed. Thus, the emphasis is on claiming that the fetus is a person, a claim that remains a subject of contention today. Traditionally, within the Church, the definition of when one became a person was related to when God gave you a soul. And God has not told us the answer to this question.

It is important to note, though, that the early prohibition of abortion was not based on concern about the fetus or beliefs about whether the fetus is a person. It was based on a view that only people who engage in forbidden sexual activity would attempt abortion. This view emphasized that abortion is wrong because the sexual act that lead to the pregnancy was immoral; it has little to do with respect for fetal life.

The Church does not know when the fetus becomes a person

As noted above, through most of history, the Church did not pay much attention to abortion except as a sexual issue. Neither St. Augustine (fifth century) nor St. Thomas Aquinas (fourteenth century)—two of the most important thinkers in the Catholic Church—considered the fetus in the early stages of pregnancy a human person.

In the fifth century, Augustine (354–430) expressed the mainstream view that early abortion requires penance only for sexual sin. Eight centuries later, Aquinas agreed, saying abortion is not homicide unless the fetus is “ensouled,” and ensoulment, he was sure, occurred well after conception. The position that abortion is a serious sin akin to murder and is grounds for excommunication became established only 150 years ago.

In its 1974 declaration on abortion, the Vatican acknowledged that it does not know when the fetus becomes a person: “There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement.”(1) It is worth noting that the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade explored this point at some length, finally concluding that the Court “need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”(2)

What, then, do Catholics do? What are we obliged to do when the Church cannot answer an important question of fact that should influence a moral decision? We follow a time-honored dictum: Ubi dubium; ibi libertas. Or, simply put, where there is doubt, there is freedom. This freedom is rooted in the core Catholic principle of respect for the conscience of each individual.

Catholic teaching has long regarded the well-formed conscience as the final arbiter in moral decision making.

At the heart of Church teachings on moral matters is the deep regard for individual conscience. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.”(3) The Church takes conscience so seriously that, as Fr. Richard P. McBrien wrote in his encyclopedic reference and teaching guide, Catholicism, even in cases of a conflict with the moral teachings of the Church, Catholics “not only may but must follow the dictates of conscience rather than the teachings of the Church.”(4)

Casual disagreement, of course, is not sufficient grounds for dissenting from moral teachings. Catholics are obliged to know and consider thoughtfully and seriously Catholic teachings. But in the end, a well-formed conscience reigns.

There is a history and tradition of Catholic dissent from Church teachings.Dissent from Church teachings is permissible, and the Church has a long tradition of disagreement among its members on official teachings, interpretations of those teachings, and ways that those teachings are expressed. At various points during the Church’s history, the Church has recognized views that were at one time in opposition to official teachings. Theologians whose opinions at one time clashed with prevailing papal views and were later recognized include Aquinas, the biblical scholar Marie-Joseph LaGrange, John Courtney Murray, and Henri de Lubac, who was singled out for special praise by Pope John Paul II some years after his views were criticized by Pope Pius XII.

The Catholic Church even has in place a doctrine whereby Catholics can legitimately disagree with the Church: the Catholic system of probabilism. While virtually unknown to most Catholics, the concept of probabilism is the safeguard within the Church that protects individuals from teachings that are either wrong or in development, as long as one can find sound reasons for a differing position. Many theologians have written in defense of reproductive choice, even though they do so at great risk of Vatican censure.

Most importantly, Catholics share in the development of official teaching through the principle of reception. Many lay Catholics do not realize that the teaching authority of the Church is Trinitarian and that they play an integral role in its formation. Teaching is not based solely on statements of the hierarchy; it also includes the scholarly efforts of theologians and the lived experience of Catholic people. “Since the Church is a living body,” the Vatican has declared, “she needs public opinion in order to sustain a giving and taking between her members. Without this, she cannot advance in thought and action.”(5)

Sensus Fidelium 

While no one would suggest that the findings of opinion polls are definitive indicators of right and wrong, on questions such as contraception and abortion, the consensus of the faithful, or sensus fidelium, cannot be said to support the hierarchy’s position. And clergy, including bishops and popes, lack the experience of Catholic couples who must work to create healthy and stable families. Catholics all over the world have soundly rejected the Church’s ban on contraception, and on the topic of abortion, in some countries and on some questions, only a minority of Catholics agree with Church leaders. There are a number of statistics from Mexico to Canada to Nigeria that supports this statement, but the most telling is the simplest: Across the globe, Catholic women use contraception and abortion in the same numbers as the population as a whole.(6)

Legality and Morality 

The principles of conscience, probabilism, and reception provide for an active, critical voice for legitimate dissent within the Church on the morality of abortion. But ultimately, to be pro-choice on abortion is to say that abortion should be legal, regardless of one’s personal view or Church position.

Many Catholics who agree significantly with the Church that abortion is immoral still believe that making it illegal is morally as well as practically ineffective in preventing abortion.

First, to make it illegal makes criminals of women whose religion may hold that abortion is the right decision for them or who themselves decide that abortion is the best choice they can make in a bad situation. The effect of putting women in a constant state of fear about whether they will be arrested or exposed to ridicule or lose their jobs is horrifying.

Second, pro-choice Catholics believe with prominent Church leaders that it is not necessary that everything we Catholics think is immoral needs to be illegal. For example, Aquinas held that prostitution should not be illegal because if it were, the authorities would not enforce it and the resulting loss of respect for the law was more damaging than any gain made by making it de jure illegal. And of course, most Catholics have given up on making divorce or contraception illegal—or for that matter forbidding fertility treatments that are also against Church positions.

Perhaps most importantly, pro-choice Catholics have an alternative to making abortion illegal. They say there is no evidence that criminalizing abortion significantly reduces the number of abortions—it only drives them underground and causes death and suffering for the women and their families. They put forward programs that would make abortion less necessary: better family planning (also forbidden by the Church), comprehensive sexuality education, the provision of contraceptives confidentially to adolescents (also opposed by Church lobbyists), and, most importantly, quality health care, jobs, and education for all. These measures would achieve a substantial reduction in the need for abortion and avoid any coercion of women.

Catholics, Choice, and Public Life 

Even in a predominantly Catholic country, laws governing access to abortion need not adhere to the official Catholic position. Church teachings, tradition, and core Catholic tenets—including the primacy of conscience and the right to dissent—leave room for support for a more liberal position on abortion. Not only has the Church acknowledged that it does not know when the fetus becomes a person, but it has also not declared its position on abortion to be an infallible teaching.

The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom reinforced the call on Catholics to respect the positions of people of other faiths. We are not to seek laws that would deny others the right to practice their faith, and we have a right to expect that laws not make it impossible for us to follow our faith.

Clearly, abortion is a serious matter, and the decision about whether to have one or not, or even to support those who do have them, is not a trivial one. While the hierarchy has chosen to impose an absolute prohibition on both contraception and abortion, this simplistic interpretation of Catholic doctrine does a disservice to both the hierarchy and the laity. Complicated issues, such as the reproductive choice Catholics make, often require complex analyses and solutions that leave room for individuals to make their own decisions. A thoughtful and compassionate review of these positions—including scrupulous attention to the complexity of theology and a soupcon of humility—would serve the Church, in its entirety, well.

Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling was founder and first president of Catholics for a Free Choice. She is the author of How to Talk About Abortion and has served on the boards of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, SIECUS, the International Women’s Health Coalition, Ibis Reproductive Health, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She is one of the three founders of the Global Fund for Women and was the first executive director and a co-founder of the National Abortion Federation.

This article was published and reprint with permission of the author and ©

(1) Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion (1974), note 19. 

(2) Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973). 

(3) Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1790.

(4) Fr. Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism, study edition (Oak Grove, Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1981), 1004 (italics in the original).

(5) Pontifical Council for the Instruments of Social Communication, Communio et Progressio, 115.

(6) Goldscheider and Mosher, Studies in Family Planning 22, no. 2; Abortion and Women’s Health, Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1990.


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