by Irene Davall
Early in the 13th Century there lived a monk whose mistress got pregnant. It must have been accidental as she could hardly have hoped to trap a monk into marriage. Apparently wanting to retain the best of all possible worlds – his monkhood and his mistress – the monk aborted the lady. What should have been a private matter between them unfortunately came to the attention of his boss, the Pope. The practice may have been widespread in monkville, or this a particularly valuable monk, but, whatever the reason, the Pope resorted to typical male chicanery to solve his problem. He wrote a new rule. He deemed the monk’s action “not irregular”, because the pregnancy was in the early months and the fetus was not yet animated. It seems ingenious that such a crafty man should be called Pope Innocent.
The special rule for one monk was included in the ecclesiastical law by Innocent’s successor, Gregory IX, and for 150 years the Catholic position on abortion was based on the “misconception” of a monk’s mistress. Gregory also adopted the old Aristotelian concept of ensoulment and declared the 4080 day fetus animation concept to be official church dogma.
Aristotle, who pre-dates Catholics by 300 years, traced the development of the soul through three stages – vegetable, animal and rational. He calculated that a male fetus entered the second, or animal stage 40 days after conception. In his judgment the female fetus animated somewhat later – 80 days after conception. Lacking any technological diagnostic tools to determine fetal sex – they blanketly applied the 80 day rule to all fetuses – who existed as “female” until the 81st day of their existence. Much of these ancient writings heavily influenced the Catholic position on abortion until relatively recently.
Prior to Aristotle, the earliest written records describing abortion came from China nearly 5.000 years ago. Egyptian writings from 1.000 B.C. instructed women to terminate unwanted pregnancies by inserting papyrus strips, cow dung pellets or dry sponges into their vaginas.
Roman, Greek and Egyptian women used abortion for population control as early as 400 B.C. and by 200 B.C.. Roman women began using abortion not only for family limitation, but for such reasons as “personal vanity and social ambition.”
During the reign of Julius Cesar, the abortion rate peaked and senators clamored for acts to curb the practice. The result was an increase in tax benefits and political preferment for additional children. History isn’t explicit on their success, but financial and political preferment for men seems a strange way of forcing women to bear unwanted children.
Alas, it would appear that the male lawmaker has learned nothing in 2,000 years! In 1969, when the entire world was becoming alarmed at the population explosion, Congress heedlessly passed a law offering a $25 tax bonus for each child and escalating the bonus to $50 in 1971.
Economic arguments are rarely used by today’s “friends of the fetus” to oppose abortion, but most cannot resist the cliche “It is against God’s will and forbidden in the Bible.” Don’t be surprised if they flounder when asked to quote scripture on the subject – it doesn’t exist.
The only Biblical reference is in Exodus, and even that isn’t a law against abortion, it concerns adulterous sex with a pregnant woman!
“If man strive and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her and yet no mischief follow: he shall surely be punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him: and he shall pay as the judges determine.” In modern translation, the passage reads. “If men get into a fight and/ or hurt a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage, without further harm, he must pay such fine as the woman’s husband imposes on him and so pay for her miscarriage.” This raises an intriguing question. Are payments made to him (rather than to her) because she was an adulteress or because the expected child was considered to be his property?
If Roman women aborted for personal vanity and there is no specific Biblical censure, why must women in the 20th Century continue to fight for the right to control their bodies? Who would control women by denying their right to choose when to be, or not to be, mothers? The answer lies in much of organized religion’s male dominated dogma. The Catholic church has an especially rigid position based on the concept of “ensoulment” – which is that a person exists at the moment of conception.
What is especially interesting is the fact that this dogma is little more than 100 years old.
In 1588, Pope Sixtus wrote only one declaration on abortion. He abolished the Aristotelian 40-80 day rule, thus setting the Church against all abortions performed after 40 days. While we happily credit Sixtus with elevating female feti to equality, he sacrificed 40 days of her existence for the privilege.
Sixtus also dealt with adultery, declaring punishment for that offense to be death by hanging. His successor viewed many of Sixtus’ pronouncements frivolous and abolished them all, except the one on abortion. Until 1869, the official Catholic position permitted abortion up to 40 days after conception.
Church rules are not law in America, but scant attention has been directed to our legal history. American laws on abortion are generally based on English common law which was adopted in the early 1800s. Before that time in England, abortion with the woman’s consent and before quickening, was not a crime at all. In the 17th century, a repressive government declared the death penalty for 232 separate offenses, one of which was abortion. Some others were for damaging the Westminister Bridge, stealing a shilling or burning an outhouse.
England also set the precedent to establish a class system for abortion services. A revision to the 1803 English law declared abortion legal when two registered doctors believed that continued pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the woman or injury to her physical or mental health. This law benefited only rich women. No poor woman could afford the opinion of two doctors.
Class discrimination prevails in America today. Although New York is one of the few States that funds Medicaid abortion, in 1971 the N.Y. State Social Service Commissioner limited Medicaid payments for abortion to “cases of necessity and medically indicated care.” The Justice Department’s recent attempts to overthrow the 1973 Roe v.
Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion on demand is obvious discrimination against poor women. If the abortion issue becomes a decision left to individual States it will be the low-income women who will suffer. Women of means will be able to travel to States where abortion on demand is permitted, just as they did before 1973. The poor will return to the back alleys – and death.
The idea that “abortion is murder” surfaced in the late 19th Century – about the time Catholic dogma declared immediate fetal ensoulment. Yet “friends-of-the-fetus” often resort to that bizarre argument which has no basis in civil or criminal law. The absurdity is obvious. Even before 1973. every State permitted abortion for specific reasons, and no one believes that legislatures in 50 States meant to condone even “selective murder”.
Not surprisingly, proponents of the argument are rarely consistent. Most favor killing in war. shudder at the thought of disarming the police and loudly insist on their personal rights to possess guns to “protect our homes and property”. Their emotional distaste for murder is confined to the “murder of the innocents”, which they slyly use as their argument to repeal legal abortion.
The history of law and church rules has been a comic-tragedy of inconsistencies. Early laws prohibiting abortion were meant to protect the life and health of pregnant women at time when all surgery was dangerous. Now, abortion in early pregnancy is statistically nine times safer than carrying a fetus to term. Clearly, denying abortion on demand in today’s world is not intended to protect the life and health of women.
Although the population explosion has reached alarming proportions, many governments continue to deny women their right to safe, legal abortions, forcing them into dangerous choices: risky, illegal abortions or childbearing against their will. Restrictive laws have never stopped women from obtaining abortions – they will continue to do so at the peril of losing their lives or health.
The pendulum which began to swing away from permissive abortions in 20 A.D. is today being forced back by women themselves. In Africa. Asia, South America – all over the world – women are determined to regain the rights which have been denied them for nearly 2.000 years. And, in the United States, women are just as determined to retain the rights we have.
Pro-Choice and Civil Rights activist Irene Davall is a Contributing Editor to On the Issues.