Augustine on Abortion, Miscarriage, & the Law

Augustine on Abortion, Miscarriage, & the Law October 27, 2022

Some people are invoking St. Augustine to justify abortion.  They say that the great theologian was not convinced that life begins at conception.  And a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine argued that physicians should perform abortions even if a state deems them illegal, since, as Augustine said, “an unjust law is no law at all.”

John Nawn, a physician, has written an article for First Things entitled St. Augustine and Justice after Dobbs, in which he shows what the bishop of Hippo actually said about abortion.

It is true that St. Augustine was not sure when life began, though he also was not convinced that “quickening,” when the mother can feel the baby moving, was the sign of “ensoulment.”  (St. Thomas Aquinas would hold to that view, based on the defective scientific knowledge of his time.  He too is invoked by pro-abortionists.  Never mind that today’s scientific embryology shows a continuum of life from the moment of conception.)  But even though St. Augustine didn’t know when life began, he was still strongly opposed to abortion.

Augustine adamantly opposed abortion at all stages of pregnancy. However, he was not sure about exactly when “ensoulment” occurred. He himself declares his ignorance on this issue in his Enchiridion:

And therefore the following question may be very carefully inquired into and discussed by learned men, though I do not know whether it is in man’s power to resolve it: At what time the infant begins to live in the womb . . .

If Augustine admits latitude about ensoulment, he nonetheless sees induced abortion itself as clearly sinful. He writes in On Marriage and Concupiscence that abortion serves “cruel lust” to insulate the pleasure of the sexual act from procreation. He avers that spouses who pursue abortion “are not husband and wife. . . . they have not come together by wedlock but by debauchery.” That abortion serves a perverse pursuit of pleasure suffices to condemn it.

Furthermore, even if an embryo is not “ensouled,” he or she is still human.  St. Augustine was even open to the possibility that miscarried children would rise, fully formed, at the Resurrection:

Augustine recognized that an embryo in the womb partakes in some way in human life. In the Enchiridion, while discussing the resurrection, he muses about miscarriages:

Who will dare to deny, though he may not dare to affirm, that at the resurrection every defect in the form shall be supplied, and that thus the perfection which time would have brought shall not be wanting . . . that what is not yet complete shall be completed, just as what has been injured shall be renewed.

To those who “feign a scrupulous anxiety . . . to cast ridicule on our faith in the resurrection” by asking whether miscarried fetuses shall rise, Augustine again admits of his ignorance and uncertainty: “I make bold neither to affirm nor to deny.” However, “trusting that God will mercifully assist my endeavors,” he concludes that if fetuses are alive, they must be human lives, however distant from maturity: Miscarried children, then, share in the resurrection, a uniquely human event.

We know more than St. Augustine did about physiology.  We now know that fetuses are alive, which means for St. Augustine that they will be raised at the last day!

As for the notion that “unjust laws are not laws at all,” so that physicians do not need to obey laws against abortion, St. Augustine in On the Free Choice of the Will was discussing the relation between human law and divine law.  “Nothing is just and legitimate in the temporal law except that which human beings have derived from the eternal law.”

I would add that this principle would seem to work in the opposite direction of what the pro-abortionist was taking it.  If God’s law forbids abortion, which it does, no temporal law can justify it.


Illustration:  The earliest known portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th-century fresco, Lateran, Rome, by unknown author –, Public Domain,

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