First, here's the relevant portion of the Meet the Press transcript (emphases mine):
MR. BROKAW: Senator Obama saying the question of when life begins is above his pay grade, whether you're looking at it scientifically or theologically. If he were to come to you and say, "Help me out here, Madame Speaker. When does life begin?" what would you tell him?Wow. Unbelievable. I suspect most of my readers could parse and fisk this, but I'll do so anyway for the benefit of those who are listening in. Pelosi asserts the following:
REP. PELOSI: I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition. And Senator--St. Augustine said at three months. We don't know. The point is, is that it shouldn't have an impact on the woman's right to choose. Roe v. Wade talks about very clear definitions of when the child--first trimester, certain considerations; second trimester; not so third trimester. There's very clear distinctions. This isn't about abortion on demand, it's about a careful, careful consideration of all factors and--to--that a woman has to make with her doctor and her god. And so I don't think anybody can tell you when life begins, human life begins. As I say, the Catholic Church for centuries has been discussing this, and there are those who've decided...
MR. BROKAW: The Catholic Church at the moment feels very strongly that it...
REP. PELOSI: I understand that.
MR. BROKAW: ...begins at the point of conception.
REP. PELOSI: I understand. And this is like maybe 50 years or something like that. So again, over the history of the church, this is an issue of controversy. But it is, it is also true that God has given us, each of us, a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And we want abortions to be safe, rare, and reduce the number of abortions. That's why we have this fight in Congress over contraception. My Republican colleagues do not support contraception. If you want to reduce the number of abortions, and we all do, we must--it would behoove you to support family planning and, and contraception, you would think. But that is not the case. So we have to take--you know, we have to handle this as respectfully--this is sacred ground. We have to handle it very respectfully and not politicize it, as it has been--and I'm not saying Rick Warren did, because I don't think he did, but others will try to.
MR. BROKAW: Madame Speaker, thanks very much for being with us.
REP. PELOSI: It's my pleasure. Thank you.
(1) That the doctors of the church have not been able to decide when life begins. But if she'd really studied the issue (as she expressly claims), she would know that no doctor of the church in particular and no orthodox father of the church has ever said abortion is OK, as we'll see at great length. It's true that some doctors and fathers and theologians of the Church raised the question of "ensoulment," asking when an unborn baby receives a soul, and given different answers. But in Christian (as opposed to Gnostic) tradition, humans are not only souls but also bodies. And thus no Father ever, ever used the idea of later ensoulment (often borrowed from Aristotle) to excuse or permit abortion. Contrary to what Pelosi expressly says, Augustine never ever said life begins at three months. In Christian tradition, until the 1960s, life was thought to begin at conception, regardless of the details certain thinkers put forth about speculative embryonic anthropology. Here's what the USCCB website says about this:
Since its beginnings, Christianity has maintained a firm and clear teaching on the sacredness of human life. Jesus Christ emphasized this in his teaching and ministry. Abortion was rejected in the earliest known Christian manual of discipline, the Didache. Early Church fathers likewise condemned abortion as the killing of innocent human life. A third century Father of the Church, Tertullian, called it "accelerated homicide." Early Church councils considered it one of the most serious crimes. Even during periods when Aristotle's theory of "delayed ensoulment" led Church law to assign different penalties to earlier and later abortions, abortion at any stage was still considered a grave evil.Again, delayed ensoulment never in point of fact did and never in point of theory can permit early abortion.
Further, even if some Father or theologian did say that delayed ensoulment permitted early abortions, it wouldn't necessarily matter. The Church does not follow every jot and tittle that Augustine or Aquinas, for instance, ever wrote. It's what the Church teaches that matters, what the magesterium says that matters, the Church having sifted and sorted the opinions of theologians and having come to a definitive and binding conclusion.
UPDATE: From the comments, a certain Scott reminds us of the Vatican's Declaration on Procured Abortion:
19. This declaration expressly leaves aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused. There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement. For some it dates from the first instant; for others it could not at least precede nidation. It is not within the competence of science to decide between these views, because the existence of an immortal soul is not a question in its field. It is a philosophical problem from which our moral affirmation remains independent for two reasons: (1) supposing a belated animation, there is still nothing less than a human life, preparing for and calling for a soul in which the nature received from parents is completed, (2) on the other hand, it suffices that this presence of the soul be probable (and one can never prove the contrary) in order that the taking of life involve accepting the risk of killing a man, not only waiting for, but already in possession of his soul.Further still, this bears on Brokaw's observation that the Church at present strongly believes that life begins at conception. In Catholicism, there can be debate on this or that until the Church speaks with authority on a question. Thus, thanks to the Council of Nicaea, Catholics are forbidden to believe that the Son was a creature. Thanks to Humanae Vitae and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, among other things, Catholics are forbidden from thinking of abortion (and ESCR and such) as anything else than a grave evil. That life begins at conception is binding, now that the Church has made it clear. It is not a matter of debate.
Since we've brought up Humanae Vitae, note that Pelosi implies there was all this grey area in the Christian tradition until "maybe 50 years" ago or so, as if Paul VI pulled Humanae Vitae out of thin air. He was codifying the consensus of centuries of tradition in the face of radical and novel cultural pressures.
(2) She asserts that abortion involves considerations "that a woman has to make with her doctor and her god." Note how individualistic and thus anti-Catholic this claim is. She does not mention any priest. She seems to think of a woman in isolation considering this option in terms of her conscience understood as what she as an individual feels is right, not a conscience captive to Christ and formed by the teachings of the Church.
(3) She asserts contraception would lead to fewer abortions. Contraception is also a grave evil in Catholic thought, but we shouldn't be surprised she rejects that. What we should point out is the intuitive but false claim that increased contraception leads to decreased abortion. Since the 1960s, when the Pill was introduced and contraception in general more widely accepted as normative, abortion rates soared even as more and more women used contraception. It's true that any particular act of intercourse involving contraception has a much lower possibility ("risk") of pregnancy. But on a broader, cultural level, the mentality that permits contraception permits also abortion as contraception. Contraception divorces sex from babies and thus makes them an often unwanted byproduct of orgasm and thus leads to the phenomenon of abortion in culture.
(4) If we don't know when life begins, as Pelosi expressly says, shouldn't we outlaw abortion? For, in our ignorance, we may be killing human persons. Shouldn't we err on the side of caution?
(5) Given Pelosi's, assumptions, why should we be concerned to lower the abortion rate? Why should they be rare?
OK. We all know that Pelosi is either well-informed and lying, or ill-informed and thus sincerely mistaken. I opt for the latter, out of charity. Pray for her, and pray her bishop (Niederauer?) has the courage to confront her in charity and in public if need be.
But what do the Fathers of the Church say?
First, we'll start with some Jewish witnesses. For Christianity grows organically out of Judaism; Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and Christianity goes from being a Jewish movement to a Jewish party to a Jewish sect to a separate religion in the first and early second centuries. (When people speak of the "Judeo-Christian" ethic or worldview, they're not simply trying to get Jews on board with their conservative cultural program. Rather, they're speaking about the facts of the matter. Christians have a fundamentally Jewish worldview.) And it's important to note that for Jews and thus for Christians, prohibitions against abortion and infanticide are the negative side of the positive view of the family and its purpose. For Jews and Christians, the human race and every individual therein reflects the image of God. The race is to be propagated. Sex is for marriage and marriage is for the procreation and raising of children (as well as companionship and such). The family forms the basic unit of society. Contraception, abortion, and infanticide pulls all this apart and is an affront to God who gives the human race as a gift to creation and gives humans other humans as gifts.
So, what do ancient Jews say?
Josephus (flourished 75-95 A.D.)
“The [Jewish] Law orders all the offspring to be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the foetus; a woman convicted of this is regarded as an infanticide, because she destroys a soul and diminishes the race.” (Against Apion, 2.202)
“If a man comes to blows with a pregnant woman and strikes her on the belly and she miscarries, then, if the result of the miscarriage is unshaped and undeveloped, he must be fined both for the outrage and for obstructing the artist Nature in her creative work of bringing into life the fairest of living creatures, man. But, if the offspring is already shaped and all the limbs have their proper qualities and places in the system, he must die, for that which answers to this descriptions is a human being, which he has destroyed in the laboratory of Nature who judges that the hour has not yet come for bringing it out into the light, like a statue lying in a studio requiring nothing more than to be conveyed outside and released from confinement.” (Special Laws III.108-109; cf. Exod 21.22 LXX)
“This ordinance carries with it the prohibition of something else more important, the exposure of infants, a sacrilegious practice which among many other nations, through their ingrained inhumanity, has come to be regarded with complacence. For if on behalf of the child not yet brought to the birth by the appointed conclusion of the regular period thought has to be taken to save it from disaster at the hands of the evil-minded, surely still more true is this of the full-born babe sent out as it were to settle in the new homeland assigned to mankind, there to partake of the gifts of Nature….If the guardians of the children cut them off from these blessings, if at their very birth they deny them all share in them, they must rest assured that they are breaking the laws of Nature and stand self-condemned on the gravest charges, love of pleasure, hatred of men, murder and, the worst abomination of all, murder of their own children. For they are pleasure-lovers when they mate with their wives, not to procreate children and perpetuate the race, but like pigs and goats in quest of the enjoyment which such intercourse gives. Men-haters too, for who could more deserve the name than these enemies, these merciless foes of their offspring? For no one is so foolish as to suppose that those who have treated dishonourably their own flesh and blood will deal honourably with strangers. As to the charges of murder in general and murder of their own children in particular the clearest proofs of their truth is supplied by the parents. Some of them do the deed with their own hands; with monstrous cruelty and barbarity they stifle and throttle the first breath which the infants draw or throw them into a river or into the depths of the sea, after attaching some heavy substance to make them sink more quickly under its weight. Others take them to be exposed in some desert place, hoping, they themselves say, that they may be saved, but leaving them in actual truth to suffer the most distressing fate. For all the beasts that feed on human flesh visit the spot and feast unhindered on the infants, a fine banquet provided by their sole guardians, those who above all others should keep them safe, their fathers and mothers. Carnivorous birds, too, come flying down and gobble up the fragments, that is, if they have not discovered them earlier, for, if they have, they get ready to fight the beasts of the field for the whole carcase. But suppose some passing travelers, stirred by humane feeling, take pity and compassion on the castaways and in consequence raise them up, give them food and drink, and do not shrink from paying all the other attentions which they need, what do we think of such highly charitable actions? Do we not consider that those who brought them into the world stand condemned when strangers play the part of parents, and parents do not behave with even the kindness of strangers? (P117) So Moses then, as I have said, implicitly and indirectly forbade the exposure of children, when he pronounced the sentence of death against those who cause the miscarriage of mothers in cases where the foetus is fully formed…when the child has been brought to the birth it is separated from the organism with which it was identified and being isolated and self-contained becomes a living animal, lacking none of the complements needed to make a human being. And therefore infanticide undoubtedly is murder, since the displeasure of the law is not concerned with ages with a breach of faith to the race. Though indeed, if age had to be taken into consideration, infanticide to my mind gives a greater cause for indignation, for in the case of adults quarrels and differences wupply any number of reasonable pretexts, but with mere babes, who have just passed into the light and the life of human kind, not even a false charge can be brought against such absolute innocence. Therefore those who gird themselves up to conspire against such as these must be judged to be the cruellest and most ruthless of men. The holy law detests them and has pronounced them worthy of punishment.” (Special Laws III.110-119).
Pseudo-Phocylides (50 B.C.—A.D. 50) says that “a woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures as a prey.”
1 Enoch (2nd-1st Cent. B.C.) says that an evil angel taught humans how to “smash the embryo in the womb” (68:18).
OK. Given that Jews thought this way, it's no surprise that Christians thought similarly. Here's a long list:
“Since this is our character, what man of sound judgment would say that we are murderers? For you cannot eat human flesh until you have killed someone…What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God? For the same person would not regard the fetus in the womb as a living thing and therefore an object of God’s care, and at the same time slay it, once it had come to life. Nor would he refuse to expose infants, on the ground that those who expose them are murderers of children, and at the same time do away with the child he has reared. But we are altogether consistent in our conduct. We obey reason and do not override it.” (Plea for the Christians, ca. 176-177 A.D.)
Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165 A.D.)
(ca. 100-165 A.D.)
“But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men; and this we have been taught lest we should do any one an injury, and lest we should sin against God, first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution. And as the ancients are said to have reared herds of oxen, or goats, or sheep, or grazing horses, so now we see you rear children only for this shameful use; and for this pollution a multitude of females and hermaphrodites, and those who commit unmentionable iniquities, are found in every nation. And you receive the hire of these, and duty and taxes from them, whom you ought to exterminate from your realm. And any one who uses such persons, besides the godless and infamous and impure intercourse, may possibly be having intercourse with his own child, or relative, or brother. And there are some who prostitute even their own children and wives, and some are openly mutilated for the purpose of sodomy; and they refer these mysteries to the mother of the gods, and along with each of those whom you esteem gods there is painted a serpent, a great symbol and mystery. Indeed, the things which you do openly and with applause, as if the divine light were overturned and extinguished, these you lay to our charge; which, in truth, does no harm to us who shrink from doing any such things, but only to those who do them and bear false witness against us.” (First Apology, 27)
“And again [we fear to expose children], lest some of them be not picked up, but die, and we become murderers. But whether we marry, it is only that we may bring up children; or whether we decline marriage, we live continently.” (First Apology, 29)
Letter to Diognetus
“[Christians] marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring.” (5; second century A.D.?)
Letter of Barnabas
“The way of light, then, is as follows. If anyone desires to travel to the appointed place, he must be zealous in his works. The knowledge, therefore, which is given to us for the purpose of walking in this way, is the following…Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born.” (19:5; ca. 75-100 A.D.).
Apocalypse of Peter
“And near that place I saw another strait place . . . and there sat women. . . . And over against them many children who were born to them out of due time sat crying. And there came forth from them rays of fire and smote the women in the eyes. And these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion” (25; ca. 135 A.D.)
Didache (i.e., the so-called “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”)
“And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.” (Didache 2:2; ca. 100 A.D.?)
“And now I should wish to meet him who says or believes that we are initiated by the slaughter and blood of an infant. Think you that it can be possible for so tender, so little a body to receive those fatal wounds; for any one to shed, pour forth, and drain that new blood of a youngling, and of a man scarcely come into existence? No one can believe this, except one who can dare to do it. And I see that you at one time expose your begotten children to wild beasts and to birds; at another, that you crush them when strangled with a miserable kind of death. 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. And these things assuredly come don from the teaching of your gods. For Saturn did not expose his children, but devoured them.…Among the Persians, a promiscuous association between sons and mothers is allowed. Marriages with sisters are legitimate among the Egyptians and in
The Sibylline Oracles (80-250 A.D.? Thought Christian, but possibly Jewish) includes among the wicked two groups: women who “produce abortions and unlawfully cast their offspring away” and sorcerers who dispense abortifacients (II.345).
“Our whole life can go on in observation of the laws of nature, if we gain dominion over our desires from the beginning and if we do not kill, by various means of a perverse art, the human offspring, born according to the designs of divine providence; for these women who, in order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the matter completely dead, abort at the same time their human feelings…Abortion is killing human life that is under God’s care, design and providence.” (Clement of
"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. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed" (Apology 9:8; ca. 200).
“Among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument, which is formed with a nicely-adjusted flexible frame for opening the uterus first of all and keeping it open; it is further furnished with an annular blade, by means of which the limbs [of the child] within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care; its last appendage being a blunted or covered hook, wherewith the entire fetus is extracted by a violent delivery… There is also [another instrument in the shape of] a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is managed in this furtive robbery of life: they give it, from its infanticide function, the name of embruosphaktes, [meaning] ‘the slayer of the infant,’ which of course was alive…They all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived, and pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death, to escape being tortured alive… Now we allow that life begins with conception because we contend that the soul also begins from conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does.” (The Soul 25, 27; 210 A.D.).
“The law of Moses, indeed, punishes with due penalties the man who shall cause abortion [Ex. 21:22–24]" (The Soul, 37 A.D.).
“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!” (Refutation of All Heresies, 9.7 ca. 228 A.D.).
Basil the Great (329-379 A.D.)
“Although keeping parrots and curlus, pagans do not adopt an orphaned child. Rather they expose children who are born at home. And yet they take up the young of birds. And so they prefer irrational creatures to rational ones…Fathers, forgetting about the children they have exposed, unknowingly have intercourse with a son who has debauched himself or with daughters who are prostitutes.”
"She who has deliberately destroyed a fetus has to pay the penalty of murder. The hairsplitting difference between formed and unformed makes no difference to us....Here it is not only the child to be born that is vindicated, but also the woman herself who made an attempt against her own life, because usually the women die in such attempts. Furthermore, added to this is the destruction of the child, another murder... Moreover, those, too, who give drugs causing abortion are deliberate murderers themselves, as well as those receiving the poison which kills the fetus." (Letter 188:2)
"Concerning women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them until the hour of death, and to this some have assented. Nevertheless, being desirous to use somewhat greater leniency, we have ordained that they fulfill ten years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees" (Canon 21; 314 A.D.).
Synod of Elvira (
“If a woman becomes pregnant by committing adultery, while her husband is absent, and after the act she destroys the child, it is proper to keep her from communion until death, because she has doubled her crime.” (Canon 63).
"Wherefore I beseech you, flee fornication. . . . 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 you do not let continue a mere harlot, but make her a murderess also. You see how drunkenness leads to prostitution, prostitution 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 prevents its being born. Why then do 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 childbearing unto slaughter? For with a view to drawing more money by being agreeable and an object of longing to her lovers, even this she is not backward to do, so heaping upon thy head a great pile of fire. For even if the daring deed be hers, yet the causing of it is thine" (Homilies on Romans 24; 391 A.D.).
Jerome (347-420 A.D.)**
"I cannot bring myself to speak of the many virgins who daily fall and are lost to the bosom of the Church, their mother. . . . Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. 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" (Letters 22:13, 396 A.D.).
“…seeds are gradually formed in the uterus, and it is not reputed homocide until the scattered elements receive their appearance and members.” (Epistle 121.4 to Algasa)
Augustine (354-430 A.D.)**
“Sometimes, indeed, this lustful cruelty, or if you please, cruel lust, resorts to such extravagant methods as to use poisonous drugs to secure barrenness; or else, if unsuccessful in this, to destroy the conceived seed by some means previous to birth, preferring that its offspring should rather perish than receive vitality; or if it was advancing to life within the womb, should be slain before it was born.” (De Nube et Concupiscentia 1.17 )
Here the question of the soul is usually raised: whether what is not formed can be understood to have no soul, and whether for that reason it is not homocide, because one cannot be said to be deprived of a soul if one has not yet received a soul. The argument goes on to say, “But if it has been formed, he shall give soul for soul”….If the embryo is still unformed, but yet in some way ensouled while unformed…the law does not provide that the act pertains to homocide, because still there cannot be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation, if it is in the flesh not yet formed and thus not yet endowed with senses.” (“On Exodus 21:22″ CSEL 8:147)
**NB re: Jerome and Augustine: The Greek version of Exodus 21:22-24 is highly relevant here (and the Greek version of the Old Testament, often called the Septuagint, was the Bible for most early Christians -- as well as Jews! -- in the ancient world, including the writers of the New Testament documents). A translation of Exod 21:22-24 reads:
“And if two men strive and smite a woman with child, and her child be born imperfectly formed, he shall be forced to pay a penalty; as the woman’s husband may lay upon him, he shall pay with a valuation. But if it be perfectly formed, he shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
Bill Bannon, commenting at Amy Welborn's blog, writes the following (which I've edited for typos):
This passage, which only requires life for life if the pre-born is formed, and not before, then seems to have caused both Fathers [Jerome and Augustine] to be less strict about ensoulment and the appellation “homicide” though they nowhere conclude that early abortion is therefore without sin because it may not be homicide. It can be mortal sin without its being murder of an ensouled person.
But we at least have to report what they held accurately and not grab for just the quotes that the internet has made prominent via the net’s involvement with debate.
True enough. Note that in either case in the verse, there is a penalty. If you cause a woman to miscarry an early term foetus, it's pecuniary. If the foetus is formed, it's capital. The upshot: this verse may have caused these Fathers (and others) to make a distinction between the very early stage of pregnancy and after and thus different canonical penalties -- penances -- for abortion in either case. (See the decrees of the Council of Ancyra and the Synod of Elvira above for examples of penances.) Above all, however, again, let it be stated: abortion was never, ever ever condoned or permitted at any stage.
If you know of any others I've overlooked (and I know there's many, many more references), let me know. I'd also recommend the following books to all:
Michael Gorman, Abortion in the Early Church
Odd Magne Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity
John R. Connery, Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective
Dennis Di Mauro, A Love for Life: Christianity's Consistent Protection of the Unborn
It's important to note that the Jewish and Christian attitudes toward pregnancy, contraception (it existed in the ancient world), abortion, infanticide, marriage, family and sex conflicted with Greco-Roman perspectives. Abortion and infanticide were common (remember the Spartan baby inspector in the movie 300 debating whether or not to throw the baby Leonidas down the cliff with the other discarded babies?). It is a great triumph of Christianity that we stamped these practices out of western society.
Until politicians like Nancy Pelosi came along, that is, mistaught by miscreant mediocre theologians who wanted to overthrow the tradition of the Church (Fr. Drinan comes to mind). On this issue and so many others, the West is slipping back into the brutality of paganism. Again, I hope the bishops of the Church -- to a man -- begin to take this issue seriously and confront Catholic politicians in charity not for the sake of politics but for the sake of the Church and her erring members, privately first, publicly if need be.