Upon this 45th annual March for Life, I read a line of attack against the Church’s pro-life stance that I had not heard before now. Some pro-choice advocates use the Church’s greatest theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, to argue in favor of abortion. Nicholas Kristof did it in a May 2017 N.Y. Times column about Dr. Willie Parker, an oxymoronically called “Christian Abortion Provider.” Mr. Kristof falsely claimed that St. Thomas Aquinas “believed that abortion was murder only after God imbued fetuses with a soul, at 40 days or more after conception.” Moreover, Aquinas even made it into the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision, citing “the 40-80 day view, and perhaps to Aquinas’ definition of movement.”
What they are both referring to is the mistaken notion that the unborn baby receives its soul (“ensoulment”) 40-80 days after conception depending upon gender. In the pre-scientific mind, this was generally thought to be recognized in the baby’s movements, or “the quickening” around 20 weeks after conception. Aquinas’ apparent false opinion was based upon the primitive science of his day (13th century), which was notably still rooted in the ancient writings (4th century B.C.) of Aristotle.
St. Thomas actually never wrote anything explicitly on abortion. So, to say that he approved of abortion is utterly false. In fact, he did condemn it implicitly in his magnum opus, Summa Theologica. For example, in his commentary on murder, he states: “He that strikes a woman with child does something unlawful: wherefore if there results the death either of the woman or of the animated fetus, he will not be excused from homicide.” (ST II-II, q.64, a.8) In another section he addresses various scenarios of whether to baptize a baby in the mother’s womb, saying: “If, however, the mother die while the child lives yet in her womb, she should be opened that the child may be baptized.” (ST, III, q.68, a.11)
St. Thomas’ underlying philosophy is correct: to kill an unborn baby is murder. He ran into some ambiguity with his era’s limited understanding of embryology. It is very clear that if St. Thomas had lived in the modern scientific age of biology, genetics and sonograms he would have concluded beyond a doubt that life begins at conception. Natural science clearly demonstrates the existence of a new genetic individual at fertilization. He was, in this respect, a victim of his time.
Nevertheless, St. Thomas did touch on this indirectly again in the third part of Summa Theologica while discussing the Immaculate Conception of Mary. He certainly argued that the human soul is present by the time of the quickening. On the other hand, he did not think philosophy itself could say definitively whether or not the soul is present before any observable body movements in the fetus. To reiterate, he did not say the soul was definitely not there, only that he could not prove it was there. In the case of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception, he argued that we do not know exactly when she was sanctified (i.e., received her soul), so the Church correctly celebrates her sanctification from the time of conception. (ST, III, q. 27, a.2, ad.3) We can infer through his conclusion that he considered ensoulment possible from the moment of conception, and thus, making any abortion tantamount to murder.
The idea of “delayed ensoulment” is a red herring, however. The Church has always taught that abortion is intrinsically evil, and is not dependent upon the idea of ensoulment. The Church’s position is built upon Scripture, Tradition, and natural law, which St. Thomas surely knew and accepted. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” (Jer. 1:5) The prophet Isaiah similarly wrote, “Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb.” (Is. 44:24) The Didache, a vade mecum written sometime near the end of the first century states, “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion.” Abortion is similarly condemned throughout the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, from Clement to St. Jerome, and so many more. St. Basil the Great wrote in the fourth century that those who have “deliberately destroyed a fetus has to pay the penalty of murder.” St. Thomas knew extraordinarily well all of these ancient Church teachings on abortion, and that it was forbidden at any stage of development.
The Catechism too is clear on this: “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion . . . is gravely contrary to the moral law.” (CCC 2271) St. Pope John Paul discussed ensoulment too as a red herring in Evangelium Vitae: “Even scientific and philosophical discussions about the precise moment of the infusion of the spiritual soul have never given rise to any hesitation about the moral condemnation of abortion.” (EV, 61) In our era today, with the force of modern scientific evidence of D.N.A. analysis and 3D ultrasounds, we can understand without question a person is a person from the moment of conception.
This is why in light of modern science the permissive acceptance of abortion is so scandalously pernicious. This callous perniciousness of the culture of death is crystallized in the fascinating case of Dr. Stojan Adasevic. Dr. Adasevic was an infamous Serbian doctor who performed abortions in the communist country of Yugoslavia for a couple of decades, killing in utero somewhere between 48,000 to 62,000 babies. His abortion mill even killed up to 35 babies in one day.
That all changed one night when he began to have a profound reoccurring dream that haunted him for weeks and weeks on end. In the dream he was in a beautiful sunlit meadow full of flowers with many children playing and laughing. All of the children were from four to 24 years of age. Whenever he would try to approach and speak to the children they would run away screaming in terror. Despite the idyllic setting of the dream, he felt oppressed and would wake up in a cold sweat each night. The recurring scene was watched over by a figure in a black and white habit who would stare silently at him.
Eventually one night, he was able to catch one of the children, and the child cried out in terror: “Help! Murderer!” At that moment, the man in the black and white habit turned into an eagle and swept down to pull the child away. The next night the doctor decided to ask the man who he was. The man replied, “My name is Thomas Aquinas.” Stojan then asked, “Who are these children?” St. Thomas answered, “These are the ones you killed with your abortions.” With that, Stojan woke up in shock, refusing to participate in any more abortions. There were many other details involved revealing this as something more than just a dream. Since that time, Dr. Adasevic became heavily involved in the pro-life movement and reverted back to the Orthodox faith of his childhood. Stojan has since apparently had a great devotion to St. Thomas Aquinas. He wonders now, having read the Summa Theologica and St. Thomas’ ambiguous writing on Aristotle’s idea of ensoulment, if “the saint wanted to make amends for that error.”
Whether or not that was, in fact, one of St. Thomas’ errors remains debatable. Clearly, he thought ensoulment was possible from the moment of conception, but he left some ambiguity in regards to the provability of that belief. Unfortunately, the primitive “science” of St. Thomas’ day could not establish that as empirical fact. Yet, he unquestionably followed the Church’s teaching on the evils of abortion, so that those who use him to promote the culture of death are wrong. We can infer that St. Thomas, the Angelic Doctor, was unwaveringly pro-life, condemning abortion as murder. And, if he were alive today, St. Thomas would clearly stand with those who accept modern science that life begins at conception.