Abortion and Personhood:
Historical and Comparative Notes

by Dr. David L. Perry

People today who identify themselves with one of the world's major faiths (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism etc.) are often unaware that their tradition may not always have affirmed a uniform or consistent position on the morality of abortion.  Even the Catholic popes through the centuries have not agreed among themselves on whether abortion ought to be equated with homicide at every stage of pregnancy.  On the other hand, the Catholic Church (like many other religious denominations) has generally opposed the intentional killing of innocent persons.   Thus the question of whether the human embryo or fetus is a person is very significant, since if it is regarded as a person from conception or from some later developmental stage of pregnancy, killing it will only be allowed in very grave circumstances, and sometimes not even then (according to some authorities).

There are no passages in the Bible specifically mentioning induced abortion, but a case stated in Exodus 21:22-24 (Old Testament) is pertinent: "When, in the course of a brawl, a man knocks against a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage but suffers no further injury, then the offender must pay whatever fine the woman's husband demands after assessment. But where injury ensues [i.e. to the woman], you are to give life for life...wound for wound." Compare the monetary fine for causing miscarriage with the penalty of capital punishment for many other offenses, as noted e.g. in Exodus 21:12, 15 & 17: "Whoever strikes another man and kills him must be put to death.... Whoever strikes his father or mother must be put to death.... Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death." The comparison suggests that the ancient Hebrews did not consider the fetus to have the same moral status as a person. (Rachels 67)

In subsequent Jewish ethics, although human life was said to be only fully present from birth, embryonic and fetal life (or "potential" life) was valued, so abortion was only permitted for weighty reasons.  Traditionally, only threats to the mother's life or physical health (or her psychological health, according to a minority view) were sufficient; permission might be granted in cases of serious fetal abnormalities, not from a direct assessment of the child's prospective suffering or quality of life, but in regard to the suffering a mother would feel concerning her child's condition. On the other hand, traditional Jewish legal scholars believed that most women would not obey a civil law prohibiting abortion, and thus they hesitated to recommend such a law. (Biale)

Aristotle, in Politics, book VII, ch. 16, reflected the acceptance of abortion in ancient Greek society: "...[W]hen couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun." In On the Soul, he distinguished between a) the nutritive/vegetative soul, characteristic of plants, b) the sensitive soul, which many animals have, and c) the intellectual/rational soul, which human beings have (alone among the animals, in his view). He believed that the human embryo/fetus first develops a), then b), then c). In Natural History, book VII, ch. 3, Aristotle claimed that male fetuses took on recognizably human form around 40 days gestation, females around 80-90 days. (This is empirically bogus, of course, but conveniently supported his belief that men are more rational than women.) Aristotle's views were later cited by many Christian writers, notably Thomas Aquinas.

In ancient Greek and Roman societies, not only abortion but even infanticide of deformed newborns was permitted. By contrast, many early Christians categorically opposed abortion.  The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, a Christian document written ca. 150, stated, "You shall not kill the fetus by abortion or destroy the infant already born." Athenagoras of Athens, defending the nonviolent ways of Christians to the Roman emperor in 177, wrote, "We call it murder and say it will be accountable to God if women use instruments to procure abortion." He referred to the fetus as "a living creature...an object of God's care."  Tertullian of Carthage wrote in Apologetics (ca. 200), "With us, murder is forbidden once for all. We are not permitted to destroy even the fetus in the womb." (Hurst 6-7) In On the Soul (ca. 210), Tertullian cited the following biblical texts in his arguments against abortion: Jeremiah 1:4-5: "Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.'" Luke 1:41-44: "When Elizabeth [the mother of John the Baptist] heard the greeting of Mary [the mother of Jesus], the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth [exclaimed], 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.... For when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.'" However, Tertullian thought that abortion should be permitted when necessary to save the mother's life (i.e., therapeutic).

Basil of Caesarea wrote in a letter to Amphilochius (374), "She who has deliberately destroyed a fetus has to pay the penalty of murder [ten years' penance]. And there is no exact inquiry among us as to whether the fetus was formed or unformed."  Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, Epistle 22 (ca. 400): "Others drink potions to ensure sterility and are guilty of murdering a human being not yet conceived [?]. Some, when they learn they are with child through sin, practice abortion by the use of drugs. Frequently, they die themselves and are brought before the rulers of the lower world guilty of three crimes: suicide, adultery against Christ, and murder of an unborn child." (Hurst 7)

By the fifth century, however, one begins to see a more complex set of Christian ideas on abortion.  Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, wrote in On Exodus (ca. 415) that early abortion should not be regarded "as homicide, for there cannot be a living soul in a body that lacks sensation due to its not yet being fully formed." Augustine believed that "hominization" took place at forty days after conception for males and eighty days for females. This view has been termed "delayed hominization" or "mediate animation," in contrast to "immediate animation/hominization" where the human soul is thought to exist from conception. However, in another work, On Marriage and Lust, Augustine condemned both abortion and contraception as immoral, since they permit sexual intercourse to occur without procreation, which he (like earlier Stoic philosophers) thought to be its only "natural" purpose. (Dombrowski; Hurst 8)

Some Christians have considered abortion worse than murder:

When Saint Fulgentius of the sixth century was asked when the stain [of original sin] attaches to the person, he replied that it begins with conception. Hence the concern with allowing the fetus to be brought to term so that it can be baptized; otherwise it is condemned to death in both worlds, making abortion clearly worse than murder. It must accordingly be said that when Catholics reputedly decide to 'let the mother die' rather than allow an abortion, they are not at all being cruel, merely consistent with a logical concern. The mother has been presumably baptized as an infant; let her die and 'go to her reward.' But let the child be brought to term and baptized and saved from perdition. So sincere is this concern that theologians at the Sorbonne in the nineteenth century invented a baptismal syringe, wherewith to baptize a fetus in utero in the event of a spontaneous abortion, a miscarriage. (Feldman 386)

(Personally, I find it impossible to reconcile the Christian affirmation of God as compassionate with the belief that God would condemn an unbaptized fetus or infant to hell.  But I digress.)

Islam has traditionally regarded "personhood" as something acquired prior to birth, although Muslims have not always agreed as to when that occurs. Several medieval Muslim authorities mentioned "ensoulment" occurring at 120 days of gestation, or about four months into a pregnancy. (It's unclear why 120 days would be significant, though it may have been based on "quickening," or the first movement of the fetus in the womb that's noticeable to the mother.) At any rate, after that point abortion was considered homicide. But even when consensus existed on that point, authorities disagreed as to whether abortion was permissible prior to ensoulment. Some thought it was, while others opposed early abortion because the embryo would otherwise become ensouled. (Rahman)

For most traditional Hindu authorities, conception marks the point of a soul's rebirth from a previous life, so abortion at any stage of pregnancy is thought to be morally equivalent to killing a person. Some Hindu traditions put the onset of personhood at three to five months gestation, though. (Crawford ch. 1)

Many Christians in the medieval period apparently believed in delayed hominization. The Teaching of an Irish Synod, i.e., Christian clergy (ca. 675): "The penance for homicide is seven years on bread and water.... The penance for the destruction of the embryo of a child in the mother's womb [early abortion?] is three and a half years. The penance for the destruction of flesh and spirit [late abortion?] is seven and a half years on bread and water.... The penance for a mother's destruction of her own child [infanticide?] is twelve years on bread and water...." Bede of England, Penitential (ca. 725): "A mother who kills her child before the fortieth day [of gestation] shall do penance for one year. If it is after the child has become alive, [she shall do penance] as a murderer. But it makes a great difference whether a poor woman does it on account of the great difficulty of supporting [the child], or a prostitute for the sake of concealing her wickedness." (Bede does not explain, though, whether the woman's motive in obtaining abortion is more important than the stage of pregnancy in which it's performed.) Another Irish penitential text, ca. 800: "A woman who causes miscarriage of that which she has conceived, after it has become established in the womb, three years and one-half of penance. If the flesh has formed, it is seven years. If the soul has entered it, fourteen years of penance." Pope Innocent III and Pope Gregory IX (ca. 1200) considered abortion to be homicide only when the fetus is "formed." (Hurst 10-11) This is rather startling, given that many 20th-century Catholics tend to assume that the Vatican has always affirmed "immediate animation."

Thomas Aquinas, On the Truth of the Catholic Faith, book II, ch. 89, reflected the influence of Aristotle's views on human development: "The vegetative soul, which comes first, when the embryo lives the life of a plant, is corrupted, and is succeeded by a more perfect soul, which is both nutritive and sensitive, and then the embryo lives an animal life; and when this is corrupted, it is succeeded by the rational soul introduced from without [i.e., by God]." This "delayed hominization" view was confirmed as Catholic dogma by the Council of Vienne in 1312, and has never been officially repudiated by the Vatican. (Hurst 12; Rachels 68)

John of Naples (1315) used "delayed hominization" to justify early abortions when necessary to save the life of the mother. (Hurst 16-17) It's not clear, though, why he did not approve of non-therapeutic abortions in the early stages of pregnancy. Perhaps he agreed with Augustine that like contraceptives they frustrate the "natural purpose" of sex.

Antonius de Cordoba and Tomas Sanchez in the 16th century, and Alphonsus Ligouri in the 18th, argued that abortion was acceptable as long as it was the "accidental" or "unintended" consequence of treatment necessary to save the mother's life. (Hurst 17) Their approach suggests the "theory of double effect," where a bad result is permitted as long as it is unintended (even if foreseen) and proportionate to a good, intended result. Presumably for these three writers, in cases of therapeutic abortion the stage of pregnancy was morally irrelevant.

Pope Sixtus V, in Effraenatum (1588), declared contraception and abortion at any stage of pregnancy, whether the fetus was "animated or not animated, formed or unformed," to be homicide, a mortal sin, and grounds for excommunication. But in 1591, Pope Gregory XIV in Sedes Apostolica recommended "where no homicide or no animated fetus is involved, not to punish more strictly than the sacred canons or civil legislation does." (Hurst 15)

In the 17th century, physicians Thomas Fienus of Louvain and Paolo Zacchia of Rome claimed that a rational soul existed from the moment of conception (Hurst 15-16), apparently because they erroneously thought they'd seen fully formed human shapes in early embryos while peering through their primitive microscopes. Their claims reflected an old belief that a rational soul could not be present until a physical human form was prepared to receive it. But they influenced the Vatican to lean toward "immediate hominization." (Rachels 68)

In 1701, Pope Clement XI instituted the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary was said to have received sanctifying grace in her soul at the moment she was conceived, which obviously meant that she had a soul at conception. This led many Catholics to think that everyone else must have a soul at conception, too, though by this point Aquinas's distinctions between various kinds of souls had been forgotten.

In 1864, a Jesuit theologian named Jean Gury wrote that although an early fetus was not ensouled, it would be just as wrong to kill a potential human being as it would to kill an actual one (though it's not obvious how a potential human being could be "killed.")  Thus, even though he accepted the delayed hominization view, he opposed abortion during all stages of pregnancy.   Immediate hominization and a total ban on abortion were declared by Pope Pius IX in 1869 and written into the Code of Canon Law in 1917. (Hurst 16 & 19)

Pope Pius XI, in Christian Marriage (1930), made it clear that the Vatican opposes all direct abortions, even those necessary to save the lives of women:

. . . [N]o reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious. . . . But another very grave crime is to be noted, Venerable Brethren, which regards the taking of the life of the offspring hidden in the mother's womb. Some wish it to be allowed and left to the will of the father or the mother; others say it is unlawful unless there are weighty reasons which they call by the name of medical, social, or eugenic 'indication.' Because this matter falls under the penal laws of the state by which the destruction of the offspring begotten but unborn is forbidden, these people demand that the 'indication,' which in one form or another they defend, be recognized as such by the public law and in no way penalized. There are those, moreover, who ask that the public authorities provide aid for these death-dealing operations, a thing which, sad to say, everyone knows is of very frequent occurrence in some places. As to the 'medical and therapeutic indication' to which, using their own words, we have made reference, Venerable Brethren, however much we may pity the mother whose health and even life is gravely imperiled in the performance of the duty allotted to her by nature, nevertheless what could ever be a sufficient reason for excusing in any way the direct murder of the innocent? This is precisely what we are dealing with here. Whether inflicted upon the mother or upon the child, it is against the precept of God and the law of nature: 'Thou shalt not kill.' The life of each is equally sacred, and no one has the power, not even the public authority, to destroy it. It is of no use to appeal to the right of taking away life for here it is a question of the innocent, whereas that right has regard only to the guilty; nor is there here question of defense by bloodshed against an unjust aggressor (for who would call an innocent child an unjust aggressor?); again there is no question here of what is called the 'law of extreme necessity' which could even extend to the direct killing of the innocent. Upright and skilful doctors strive most praiseworthily to guard and preserve the lives of both mother and child; on the contrary, those show themselves most unworthy of the noble medical profession who encompass the death of one or the other, through a pretense at practicing medicine or through motives of misguided pity.

Similar views have been expressed by Pope Paul VI in Human Life (1968), the Vatican's Declaration on Abortion (1974), and Pope John Paul II in The Gospel of Life (1993).

In most countries today where the Roman Catholic Church is dominant, direct abortion is prohibited by law. The Vatican permits only two cases of "indirect" abortion: in ectopic pregnancy, where the embryo implants in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus; and when the uterus itself becomes cancerous. Even though the fetus dies if the tube or uterus is removed, the Vatican regards the death of the fetus as not directly intended, hence permissible (Callahan).   Vatican policies also apply to Catholic hospitals in the U.S.

In English and American common law prior to the 19th century, abortion was not a crime prior to "quickening," the first movement of the fetus in utero to be felt by the mother, occurring usually between the 16th and 18th week of pregnancy.  (Quickening apparently has little legal significance today, though it may still have moral significance for some people.)

From roughly 1865 to 1960, many American states enacted legal restrictions on abortion. During the 1960s, about a third of the states liberalized their laws. But in 25 states as recently as 1972, abortion was only permitted when necessary to preserve the mother's life. (Rosenfield and Kunins 130ff.)

Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade (1973) and subsequent cases established women's constitutional right to obtain abortions.  The Court refused to grant fetuses the status of legal persons at any stage of pregnancy, but it also claimed that states have a "compelling interest" in the life of the fetus once it becomes viable.   States must permit "therapeutic" abortions (those needed to preserve women's lives and health) at every stage of pregnancy.  They must also permit "elective" abortions prior to viability, but may restrict them after that point.   (Most but not all states restrict late-term elective abortions.)  Beginning in 1976, the U.S. Congress prohibited Medicaid funding of abortions for poor women, except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother's life.  That law has been upheld by the Supreme Court.  (Shapiro)

In 1981, the First International Conference on Islamic Medicine was held in Kuwait. As a result of that conference, the Islamic Code of Medical Ethics was written. In contrast to the "delayed animation" view in traditional Islam, this Code regards the human embryo from the moment of conception as a complete human being deserving protection. In many Muslim countries today, abortion is only permitted to save the mother's life.

Given traditional opposition to abortion in Hinduism, it may be surprising that contemporary law in India is fairly liberal. Abortion is permitted not only when the mother's life is endangered, but also in cases of rape (out of concern for the mother's anguish and mental health), fetal deformity (compassion for the child's physical or mental suffering), and contraceptive failure (anguish of unwanted pregnancy for the woman). (Crawford ch. 1)

Consider how Aristotle and other proponents of delayed hominization might interpret the following recent findings in neuroscience:

Synapses are what form the overwhelming number of connections between nerves. Since the functions of the brain depend almost exclusively on the ability of nerve cells to communicate with each other, synapses are also key to understanding the brain. . . . The cells that will eventually be part of the cerebral cortex [the higher brain, the foundation of human consciousness] begin forming in the seven-week embryo. . . . They migrate to positions in what will eventually be the cortex, where they build up in layers. . . . Before synapses are formed, the fetal brain is just a collection of nerve cells. The fetus is incapable of awareness or volition. . . . [The] burst of synapse formation [between 25 and 32 weeks gestation] marks the period during which the brain is transformed from a collection of individual cells into a connected machine capable of carrying out human thought. . . . [B]efore the wiring up of the cortex, the fetus is simply incapable of feeling anything, including pain. . . . [S]ignals may be sent by the nerves, but there is simply nothing to receive them. They stop at the brain stem for the simple reason that there is nowhere else for them to go. (Morowitz and Trefil 112-113, 116-117, and 158-159)

Today in the U.S., 91% of all abortions occur within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, 98% within 15 weeks, and 99.9% within 27 weeks. (Alan Guttmacher Institute) A full-term pregnancy lasts 40 weeks.

When performed by qualified physicians, abortions today are more than 10 times safer to women than giving birth.   (Rosenfeld and Kunins 135)  By contrast, every year at least 75,000 women die from unsanitary abortions in countries where they're illegal. (Crossette)

Consider:  If persons (having a prima facie right to life) were said to exist from a certain stage or point in physical development, what would be the corresponding stage or point when it would be sensible to declare persons to be dead?  If conception, e.g., were regarded as a sufficient condition for personhood, why would whole-brain death be sufficient to declare a person dead?  If viability were a necessary condition for being a person, would persons die when they became completely dependent on life-sustaining technologies?  When we attempt to develop a "metaphysic" of persons, it becomes clear that neither conception nor viability (nor birth, for that matter) mark a sensible beginning point.

On the other hand, if the capacity for consciousness is a necessary condition for personhood, and hence necessary to having interests and rights (as I believe Steinbock and others have persuasively shown), then early abortion cannot credibly be equated with murder.  This criterion would also seem to imply that individuals in persistent vegetative states should be considered dead, since they have permanently lost the capacity for consciousness  (Cranford and Smith).

If late-term fetuses were regarded as persons, would that entail a complete prohibition of late-term abortions?   Perhaps not, if therapeutic abortion can be construed as killing in self-defense (English).  This would also suggest that the traditional moral belief that it is always immoral to intentionally kill an innocent person would have to be qualified.

In most human cultures until recently, the interests and rights of women were given very little weight.  Women were often regarded as the property of their fathers or husbands rather than as autonomous persons.  Women could rarely refuse to have sex with their husbands or to bear children.  Single women who became pregnant due to rape or were too poor to raise children were unable on those grounds alone to obtain approval from most religious authorities for abortions.

Today, we rightly react with outrage to such violations of women's rights, dignity and well-being.  Even many people who disapprove of abortions nonetheless support the legal right of women to obtain them, in part because the consequences for women when abortion is illegal are often deadly.

Many pregnancies are avoidable, of course.  Some couples who aren't ready to rear children have sex anyway without using contraceptives.  That's irresponsible.  There is every reason to advocate and practice responsible sex to avoid unwanted pregnancies.  But there is no convincing moral reason to deny women their legal right to abortion.  Women must be trusted to make responsible decisions about their own pregnancies.  They are right to resent and oppose efforts to take that choice away from them.



Biale, Rachel, "Abortion in Jewish Law," Tikkun 4 (July-August 1989).

Callahan, Daniel, Abortion: Law, Choice, and Morality (Simon & Schuster, 1970).

Cranford, Ronald and David Smith, "Consciousness: The Most Critical Moral (Constitutional) Standard for Human Personhood," American Journal of Law & Medicine 13/2-3 (1987):233-248.

Crawford, S. Cromwell, Dilemmas of Life and Death: Hindu Ethics in a North American Context (SUNY Press 1995).

Crossette, Barbara, "Unicef Cites Pregnancy Toll: 585,000 Women Die Yearly," New York Times, 11 June 1986.

Dombrowski, Daniel, "St. Augustine, Abortion, and Libido Crudelis," Journal of the History of Ideas, 1988.

English, Jane, "Abortion and the Concept of a Person," Canadian Journal of Philosophy 5/2 (October 1975).

Feldman, David, "This Matter of Abortion," in Elliot Dorff & Louis Newman, Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality (Oxford U. Press, 1995), pp. 382-391.

Hurst, Jane, The History of Abortion in the Catholic Church (Catholics for a Free Choice, 1989).

Morowitz, Harold and James Trefil, The Facts of Life: Science and the Abortion Controversy (Oxford U. Press, 1992)

Rachels, James, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, third edition (McGraw-Hill, 1999).

Rahman, Fazlur, Health and Medicine in the Islamic Tradition (Crossroad, 1987).

Rosenfield, Allan and Hillary Kunins, "Abortion: A Public Health Perspective," in Fritz Better and Robert Weir, The Beginning of Human Life (Kluwer, 1994), pp. 129-144.

Shapiro, Ian, Abortion: The Supreme Court Decisions (Hackett, 1995).

Steinbock, Bonnie, Life before Birth: The Moral and Legal Status of Embryos and Fetuses (Oxford, 1992).


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