Dissenting View: A review of A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion

A book review by Anthony Padovano
Spring 2000

A Brief, Liberal Catholic Defense of Abortion
By Daniel A. Dombrowski and Robert Deltete
(University of Illinois Press, 2000, 158 pp.)

In this brilliant book, Daniel A. Dombrowski and Robert Deltete, professors of philosophy at Seattle University, argue that the Catholic tradition on abortion is very different indeed from the present teaching of the Catholic Church. They explore this issue through two different philosophies and two major Catholic theologians.

The two philosophies are the perversity of sex (abortion distorts sex) and the ontological (the fetus as person) philosophies. Augustine is primarily identified with the perversity of sex argument and Thomas Aquinas with the ontological approach.



The authors begin with Augustine and demonstrate quite convincingly that Augustine made a sharp distinction between early and late abortions. He condemned abortion in both instances, but for different reasons.

In the early stages of pregnancy, Augustine views abortion as evil, not because human life is present, but because the purpose of sex is destroyed. For Augustine, sex had value only if it intended procreation. It was, nonetheless, always sinful, even for spouses seeking to have children, unless they managed to have sex without pleasure. Pleasure vitiated sex, which was already corrupt in its essence. The best way to deal with sex was to abstain from it.

Only through procreation could sex gain some limited meaning. Augustinian principles eventually condemn contraception, the rhythm method, post-menopausal sex and sex for infertile couples. Abortion in the early stages is evil, according to Augustine, because it destroys the conception, which is the only justification for sex.

It is clear that Augustine did not believe human life is present from conception. He said he did not know when the life in the womb is human (ignoro quando incipiat homo in utere vivere). He assumed that “unformed fetuses perish like seeds that have never been fructified.” It is not the loss of human life or a person which grieves Augustine, but the loss of the purpose of sex. Even conservative theologians today reject Augustine’s analysis of sex and his reasons for condemning early abortion.

It is instructive to note that Augustine presupposed development of human life in the womb and not the immediate identification of conception and ensoulment. Abortion in the later stages is evil, Augustine believed, because human life is present-after sensation and quickening occur.



Aquinas was less interested in abortion than Augustine. There is no article in the Summa on abortion. Aquinas developed an ontological argument. Technically called hylomorphism, the argument states that there is no human life in the womb until the fifth or sixth month when quickening occurs. Until then, argued Aquinas, we are dealing with vegetative life and animal life, both of which are produced by human semen and both of which cease to exist when the fetus attains full sensation and a human form. It is then that a rational soul is infused into the fetus from without and by God.

God cannot infuse a soul into a small cluster of cells because body and soul belong together; a cluster of cells is not a human body. Aquinas believes in delayed hominization. Indeed, hylomorphism is essential to his philosophy and his definition of what it means to be human. Two subsequent ecumenical councils (Vienne in 1311 and Trent in 1545) taught that no human embryo could have a human soul.

Dombrowski and Deltete assign the change in Catholic thinking to two developments, one in the seventeenth century and the other in the nineteenth. For more than a millennium, the Catholic tradition worked with assumptions and teaching it now rejects.


Seventeenth Century Science

In the seventeenth century, magnifying glasses and, later, microscopes detected what appeared to be a human form in fetal tissue. The time of ensoulment was, accordingly, pushed back to the moment of conception or soon after this.


Twentieth century science would pinpoint the early appearance of a human form more accurately. There may be sense receptors and brain cells present fairly early on, but they are more like a collection of loose wires and switches. They are not connected until about the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy, when a cerebral cortex is in place. It is then that we have a human form and human perception.


Astonishingly, the timeline for a radical change in the development of the fetus around the fifth or sixth month is the same in Scholasticism, science and the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision.


Nineteenth Century Doctrine

The authors argue that a different boundary was crossed in the nineteenth century when Pope Pius IX in 1854 defined the Immaculate Conception as a dogma of faith. If Mary was conceived without sin, it was now argued, she must have been a person from conception. One cannot attribute sin to vegetative or animal life.

Fifteen years later, in 1869, Pius IX, for the first time in church history, excommunicated all those directly involved in abortions with no distinction between early or late abortions. Indeed even the preservation of the life of the mother was not a sufficient reason for an abortion once conception was in place.

The stage was set for a holy crusade against abortion because the volatile elements of vunerable human life, marian piety, papal loyalty, permissive sexuality and feminine autonomy were in now place.



No book is perfect, but this book is excellent. There are times when Dombrowki and Deltete sound almost harshly rational in their brilliant and unrelenting analysis. The tears and trauma of abortion are not given place in this book. There are other moments in the book, however, when the logical options are not complete. The authors will argue about issues like the potentiality of life without detailing the possibility of a tertium quid in the alternatives they delineate.

A future edition of the book might be more ecologically sensitive. At times a sense of respect for varied dimensions of inanimate and non-human existence is not operative. The eagerness of the authors to limit moral claims to sentient life, quite well argued, gives the impression that creation is less comprehensively sacred than they intend. The ecological sacramentality of creation would enhance the value of this book in my opinion.

I would have preferred to have some development of the pastoral, theological, and spiritual consequences of the authors’ positions. In fairness to them, however, they are philosophers and have every right to limit their focus as they did.

Dombrowski and Deltete are insightful and fair throughout their book. They have done their research. This book is a model of reasoned discourse about an inflammatory issue. I cannot think of a Catholic-or any thoughtful person-who would not benefit from it.


Anthony Padovano is a Catholic theologian.

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