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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 7. 11th April 1973

Catholics Keep Women in The Home — 'Abortion laws have nothing to do with murde they have to do with keeing women in chains'

page 8

Catholics Keep Women in The Home

'Abortion laws [unclear: have] nothing to do with [unclear: murde] they have to do with keeing [unclear: women] in chains'

When I became active in the Women's Liberation Movement it soon grew clear to me why a women's right to abortion is so central to the liberation of women. While we are biologically oppressed — forced to have children — our existence as the oppressed sex will forever continue. It is only with the repeal of the abortion laws, when women at long last will be granted our basic right to choose whether or not to have children, that we can move confidently towards liberation.

Many Catholic women like myself, realising this, find themselves in contradiction with the dogma preached by the Catholic Church. An examination of the history of the church's position and the reasons for such soon solves this dilemma. I now see the Catholic Church as being very much a part of a society which places women in the home, forcing us to take part in the 'joys of motherhood'.

Pope Paul stated on 6th December last year: "True women's liberation does not lie in a formalistitic or material equality with the other sex, but in the recognition of that which is specific in the feminine personality — the ability of a woman to be a mother".

Even more interesting is the history of the church's position on birth control and abortion which goes back many hundreds of years. In early Rome, contraception was practically unknown. However abortion was known and accepted as a means of birth control. The fetus was not considered a separate human being but simply a part of the woman's body. Abortion was punished if the woman did not have her husband's consent. But the punishment was for wifely disobedience, not for the act of abortion.

Very early in the Christian era abortion began to appear in a different light. The early Christians were warned: "Thou shalt not slay the child by abortions". Abortion was equated with murder. Soon debates arose from this ruling. Jerome and Augustine, major figures in the development of Christian Ethics, had read Aristotle and become interested in his distinction between the 'souled' and the 'unsouled' fetus. They reasoned that if the unsouled fetus is aborted then it isn't murder.

Aristotle believed that the male fetus was endowed with a soul 40 days after conception, and a female got hers after 80 days. Jerome, Augustine and Thomas Acquinas accepted Aristotle's thesis. They decided abortions were permissable for a male fetus until the 40th day after conception, and until the 80th day for a female fetus. The fact that no-one knew how to determine the sex of a fetus did not seem to bother them. The church fathers in their uncertainty were always careful to maintain a certain ambiguity on these questions.

However in 1140 Pope Cretian announced: "He is not a murderer who brings about an abortion before the soul is in the body". In 1234 Pope Gregory 9th upheld that ruling especially if a woman's life was in danger. Thomas Sanchez, a Catholic theologian went so far as to portray a fetus that endangered a woman's life as an 'invader' or 'attacker'. In 1588 Pope Sixtus 5th abruptly announced that Church and secular penalties should be the same for abortion and murder. Three years later Gregory 16th reversed that decision and abolished all penalties before ensoulment.

All this sounds confusing and contradictory, because it is just that. The point is that the church has only recently made up its mind on the question of abortion. It wasn't until the mid-19th century that Pius 9th finally eliminated the churches distinction between souled and unsouled fetuses. Church penalties for abortion were made uniform. This policy has continued through to the present time. In 1972 Pope Paul said: "The fetus has a full right to life from the moment of conception and that the woman has no right to abortion even to save her life". He ended his statement by saying: "The Church stand against abortion has not changed and will never change". It seems that the infallible Pope Paul is not even familiar with the history of the Catholic Church's stand on abortion.

The church regulations for abortion are clearly much stricter than those for self-defence, war or execution. The church justifies beforehand any policeman who kills in in time of war, and any government that executes in error. But it condemns beforehand any woman who has an abortion. Extenuating circumstances hold for policemen, soldiers and governments, but not for women.

Obviously what held together the Church's conflicting opinions on abortion was its determination to find the most effective way to control women — what else can one deduce from such a history. If abortions were permissable at certain times, it was because the hierarchy said so; if abortions were ruled out at other times, it was by the hierarchy's decree. The hierarchy has delegated to itself the power to determine just what women can do. The Catholic Church in denying women control of their bodies, has been successful in making women accept the narrow role of mothers and housekeepers, thus ensuring the continuation of the patriarchal society. The church hierarchy held women in contempt long before Thomas Acquinas described us as "misbegotten males", and having brushed aside all these apologies for women's oppression I believe the church has nothing but contempt for us today. I found it particularly encouraging to read this statement some time ago by Patricia Brown, co-chairwoman of a coalition of Catholic Women's Organisations in New York. She said:

"The bishops are underestimating the intensity of Catholic women's feeling because they regard women as a threat. The authority of the church rests on an anti-woman basis".

Today not only in America but in Ireland, France and Italy, Catholic women are demonstrating with their sisters for the repeal of the abortion laws. They realise as I have done that the Catholic Church has no right to impose its particular moral beliefs on others, and that it is time for all women to unite against this form of oppression by the state and the Catholic Church and to gain for ourselves the right to control our bodies by repealing all Abortion Laws.