The legal status of abortion has been a fraught subject in many times and places, including Catholic-controlled sixteenth-century Italy. Prior to 1588, historian John Christopoulos writes, Catholic law held that abortion was homicide only if the unborn had been infused with a rational soul—something that was believed to occur at around 40 days after conception for a male and 80 days for a female.
Yet clerics’ writings on the issue portrayed a more complex issue. A husband who beat his pregnant wife might be guilty of abortion, but only if he intentionally caused her to lose the pregnancy. Some Church texts warned that “procuring things” to end any pregnancy at any stage, or even to avoid getting pregnant, was a sin equivalent to smothering an infant. A doctor or apothecary might be guilty of a mortal sin if they offered an abortion even to save a woman’s life.
Making things even more complicated, Christopoulos writes, premodern Europeans saw female bodies as “intrinsically deceptive,” meaning that a therapy that purged the womb to restart menstruation might be seen as having nothing to do with true pregnancy. “[T]he expulsion of a lump of flesh, or an immature or unformed fetus did not necessarily signify that a true or viable conception had been terminated or that a child had died,” he writes.
During the Counter-Reformation, ecclesiastical authorities put a new emphasis on stamping out illicit sexuality of various kinds. For them, abortions were a particular problem because they could hide sinful sexual relationships, including those between priests and women in their spiritual care. In the 1570s and 1580s, abortion—whether or not the fetus was ensouled—was increasingly seen as an “atrocious and grave” crime that could not be absolved in the confessional but must be addressed by a bishop.
It was also a common crime. While it’s impossible to know how many abortions took place in this era, Christopoulos writes that the church seems to have considered it a widespread, socially accepted practice.
In 1588, Pope Sixtus V tried to change that. He issued a papal bull officially classifying abortion, regardless of the stage of fetal development, as homicide. This was both theological dictate and criminal law, subjecting violators to excommunication and worldly punishment.
The papal bull meant that anyone who had sought, performed, or aided in an abortion must be excommunicated from the church and could seek forgiveness only by travelling to Rome. But the trip was dangerous, expensive, and almost impossible to undertake secretly. Immediately, bishops and vicars from around Italy began writing to the pope, asking for clarifications or special permission to absolve violators.
The volume of requests for exemptions made it clear that the papal bull was unenforceable. Rather than refraining from the widespread practice of abortion, many Catholics would simply accept or ignore excommunication from the church.
Sixtus agreed to many of the requests, allowing priests to absolve people involved in abortions who were unable to travel to Rome. This was to happen in the privacy of the confessional to prevent the kind of social discord that could follow from the public revelation of an abortion. Christopoulos notes that the pope’s responses gave no indication that he expected the sinners to suffer capital punishment, as we might expect if they were actually considered murderers.
After Sixtus’s death in 1590, Pope Gregory XIV quickly rolled back the dictate, limiting it to ensouled fetuses. This, of course, offered no permanent resolution to the legal status of abortion. In the centuries that followed, the issue has remained among the most divisive imaginable in both secular and religious contexts.