On January 28, the Catholic Church celebrated the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, a medieval Dominican friar who was canonized in 1323 and is still recognized today as one of the greatest theologians and philosophers of the Western world. He is known among religious and secular scholars alike for his works’ massive contributions to the fields of ethics, natural law, metaphysics and political theory. Less well-known, however, is the manner in which these works have shown up in the abortion debate: astonishingly, to support (rather than defeat) abortion.
In the landmark abortion case Roe V. Wade, the Supreme Court stated: “Due to continued uncertainty about the precise time when animation occurred, to the lack of any empirical basis for the 40-80-day view, and perhaps to Aquinas’ definition of movement as one of the two first principles of life, Bracton focused upon quickening as the critical point.”
Bracton is a legal treatise from thirteenth century England which surveyed the application of common law in courts of that age. This excerpt, part of a litany of examples, served to demonstrate that abortion had been less restricted throughout common law history than it was under present statutes in America, in support of the decision to prohibit states from banning abortion in the first trimester.
The court’s citation of Thomas Aquinas in this case represents an unfortunate distortion of the saint’s ethical views. Aquinas did believe that “ensoulment”, or the bestowing of a soul on an unborn child, must have occurred by 40-80 days after conception, based on when the baby begins to move noticeably, or “quicken” around 20 weeks after conception. Evidently, pro-choice proponents have long inferred from this opinion support for abortion at least in the earlier stages of pregnancy, because there is a period of time before the fetus is imbued by God with a personhood indicated by his or her animation in the womb.
Yet, to construe in St. Thomas such disregard for the teachings of the Scriptures, all of Church tradition, and natural law (his own subject) is to hide or willfully neglect the culture of life underlying his whole thought system. The Supreme Court did not mention his supplemental teaching- that philosophy cannot prove whether or not the soul is present before any observable body movements in the fetus. This is why he argues for the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception in his famous Summa Theologica; because we cannot say for certain when the soul is received, it is only safe to assume that she was sanctified from the first moment of her existence.
Thomas Aquinas was not an abortion advocate by any measure. His belief concerning “ensoulment” was due to the primitive science of his day and never obscured his (or the Catholic Church’s) understanding of the intrinsic evil that is killing the unborn. As a theologian, Aquinas showed how faith never contradicts reason; any perceived conflict merely indicates an error in the basis of our reasoning. Had he witnessed the modern biological and genetic discoveries which now testify unquestionably to pre-born “animus”, he undoubtedly would have accepted and agreed. The real question is why so many abortion advocates who claim to rely on science refuse to do the same.