Catholics for a Free Choice


Especially non-Catholics may assume that the beliefs of Catholics are easily characterized and reducible to a single church teaching. This assumption is directly challenged by Catholics For a Free Choice, especially as represented by the well-known ethicist Daniel C. Maguire and theologian Marjorie Reiley Maguire.

Marjorie Reiley Maguire, Daniel C. Maguire. Abortion: A Guide to Making Ethical Choices. Washington, DC: Catholics For a Free Choice, 1983.

This guide steps the reader through questions one would expect in a philosophical discussion of the issue, e.g., "Is the fetus a person?" But it is intended more precisely to help Catholic women work through the moral choices involved in abortion. The Guide identifies five beliefs which underlie its presentation:

1. In making moral judgements about abortion, it is important to avoid rigid and negative attitudes toward sexuality itself.
2. The decision to abort can be a moral decision justified by many circumstances; the decision can also be unjustified.
3. Abortion must be legal for women to even begin to make a moral choice with real freedom.
4. The abortion decision involves intrinsic values. These values include, but are not limited to, the value of a woman's life and her life plan and the value of the fetus.
5. We all have an obligation to work actively to create a society in which women will not need to choose between the value of their own well-being and that of the fetus.
--"Preface"

In presenting abortion as a possible moral choice for Catholic women, the Maguires stress that it is a mistake to believe that "Catholics must believe that anything the Pope says on a moral subject like abortion is infallible." Rather, the proclamation of a doctrine of faith or morals as infallible must be declared as such - and only after the doctrine is already held "by most people as part of the faith of the universal Church." They state flatly: "The Pope has never done this on the matter of abortion. Moreover, most moral theologians in the Church agree that no Pope has ever issued an infallible teaching on any specific area of morality. Many even say that it would be almost impossible for him to do so because morality involves circumstances, and no one can know all the circumstances of each and every person in the world."

They acknowledge that "The Pope and most bishops hold the position that abortion is morally wrong. They believe that at some unknown point in its development the fetus becomes a person with an immortal soul." At the same time, however, "There is no Church teaching stating when ensoulment and personhood occur."

Over against this lack of official Church doctrine, the Callahans further stress that the laity are also "part of the teaching Church along with the Pope, bishops, and theologians." This means that their beliefs - including the 22% of Catholics who believe abortion should be legal under all circumstances, and 57% of Catholics who hold that abortion should be legal under some circumstances - should be considered part of the teaching Church. They further observe that "Catholicism also teaches that the conscience of the person is the final guide to be followed when deciding to act....You are not guilty of sin if you follow your conscience, even if most people in the Church would consider your action wrong." This inclusive view of the Catholic Church, one that finally stresses individual conscience, means for the Callahans that "the Catholic Church, when considered in its rich diversity, teaches that some abortions can be moral and that conscience is the final arbiter of any abortion decision." If this sounds somewhat different from what one might ordinarily associate with Catholicism, the Callahans explain: "Unfortunately, the Catholicism that is taught in many Catholic parishes does not reflect the richness of the Catholic faith."

The Guide also includes brief sections on Protestant and Jewish beliefs regarding abortion. In the section on Protestant teaching, the Callahans note that early Protestants were "even more rigorous" than their Catholic counterparts in the 16th ct. in their opposition to abortion, but that this position changed over time - first of all because of Protestant reliance on Exodus 21:22 and the Jewish tradition of its interpretation which takes the passage to mean that the fetus iss not considered a person. (They further claim that this is "The only passage in the Bible that even approaches a discusion of abortion..." - a claim hotly contested by anti-abortion folk.) They also note that the tightening restrictions on abortion in the 19th ct. arose for medical and racial, not religious reasons. They conclude:

Since there is no clear Biblical teaching prohibiting abortion and since Protestantism cherishes freedom of conscience without coercion from secular or religious authorities, mainline Protestant denominations today generally have issued statements declaring their belief that a woman has the moral and the legal right to decide whether an abortion is the right action for her with her particular circumstances.

Their summary of Judaism is especially concise and to the point:

An unborn life is not considered to be a person and so does not have the rights of a person. According to the Mishnah, the fetus becomes a person when the head or its greater part has been born. After this it may not be killed even to save the mother, because it would mean that greater value was being given to one person's life over another's. But destruction of fetal life before this time is not considered murder in Jewish law.

This further means that "abortion to save the life of the mother is not merely permitted in the Mishnah but was required, even during the delivery process, as long as the greater part of the fetus had not yet been born."

Still, there is no single Jewish position:

Rabbis in Reform Judaism generally take a prochoice stance ... while rabbis in Orthodox and Conservative Judaism are generally less permissive. There is no one unified group that officially speaks for all of Judaism, but the Central Conference of American Rabbis, as well as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which represents the Reform movement, formally support the woman's right to moral and responsible choice.

The point of stressing this range of religious opinion - both within and beyond Catholicism - is to stress the importance of choice in the abortion issue in order to preserve religious freedom.


Daniel C. Maguire. Reflections of a Catholic Theologian on Visiting an Abortion Clinic. Washington, DC: Catholics for a Free Choice, 1984.

She was almost six weeks pregnant. Her life situation was seriously incompatible with parenting and she could not bear the thought of adoption. After her abortion, she told us she thought she had made the right decision, but she paid a price in tears and soul trauma. I remember her piercing words about the rosary-saying pickets: "They were taking a precious symbol of my faith and turning it into a weapon against me."
Adoption is easily recommended at the bumper-sticker level of this debate. One patient I spoke with during a subsequent visit to the clinic told me how unbearable the prospect was of going to term and then giving up the born baby. For impressive reasons, she thought herself in no condition to have a baby. Yet, even at five weeks, she had begun to take vitamins to nourish the embryo in case she changed her mind. "If I continued this nurture for nine months, how could I hand over to someone else what would then be my baby?" It struck me forcefully how aloof and misogynist it is not to see that the adoption path is supererogatory. Here is one more instance of male moralists' prescribing the heroic for women as if it were simply normal and mandatory.
I learned that some of these men [protesting at the abortion clinic] had been coming every Saturday for eight years. The language was filled with allusions to the Nazi Holocaust. Clearly, they imagine themselves at the ovens of Auschwitz, standing in noble protest as innocent persons are led to their deaths. There could hardly be any higher drama in their lives. They seem not to know that the Nazis were anti-abortion too - for Aryans. They also miss the anti-Semitism and insult in this use of Holocaust imagery. The six million Jews and two million to three million Poles, Gypsies and homosexuals killed were actual, not potential, persons. Comparing their human dignity to that of pre-personal embryos is no tribute to the Holocaust dead. Jews and other survivors of victims are not flattered.


HomePage for Abortion: Religious Perspectives HomePage for Academic Dialogue on Applied Ethics


Robert Cavalier, Carnegie Mellon and Charles Ess, Drury College