I am not Catholic yet, but am attending RCIA and my first confession is next week. I had an abortion years ago.
According to the official teaching of the Catholic Church:
- Do I have to confess this?
- Is this a mortal or venial sin?
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I'm going to disagree slightly with Andrew Leach on this one.
As far as excommunication: since you obviously weren't a member of the Church at the time, excommunication is obviously impossible. The information Andrew gives on excommunication for abortion is valuable, though; you should certainly be aware of just how seriously the Church takes this action.
As far as "Do I have to confess this?"—Canon 988, section 1, of the Code of Canon Law states:
A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which the person has knowledge after diligent examination of conscience.
You have, thus, an obligation to confess the abortion if it is a mortal sin. If it is a venial sin, you are encouraged, but not strictly obliged, to confess it:
Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1458)
Similarly, the Roman Catechism (or Catechism of the Council of Trent) states:
All mortal sins must be revealed to the priest. Venial sins, which do not separate us from the grace of God, and into which we frequently fall, although they may be usefully confessed, as the experience of the pious proves, may be omitted without sin, and expiated by a variety of other means.
So the question becomes whether the abortion was, at the time you arranged for it, a mortal sin.
For a sin to be mortal, three things are necessary (see Catechism paragraphs 1857–1860):
Procurement of an abortion (which is how we refer to the action of a woman who has an abortion), as Andrew Leach points out, is very definitely "grave matter"; it is, in the Church's teaching, arranging for a human being to be killed. So that box is checked.
I don't think there's enough information in the question to assert baldly that full consent of the will took place. It appears probable from the way the question is phrased, though not definite, that there was no physical coercion taking place; nor do we know anything about the mental or physical stress that you were going through. This might—and I stress might—mitigate the seriousness of the sin.
Finally comes the question of full knowledge. Unfortunately, simply stating that you didn't believe at the time that the fetus or embryo was a human being is not necessarily enough to demonstrate that you didn't have full knowledge of what was being done. The Church does teach that certain moral truths are "written on the heart", and that if a human being could conclude, simply using natural reason, that an act was wrong, then you should have known it. But the question of whether one can conclude from natural reason alone that abortion is wrong essentially turns into the question whether one can conclude using natural reason alone that the fetus/embryo/etc. is indeed a human; and this I think is a vexed question. Thus, absent some more pastorally relevant information which doesn't appear in the question, I don't know that there's enough information to conclude with certainty that your act was based on "full knowledge" as the Church defines it.
All the above considered, my conclusion is: The information given in the question is insufficient to enable one to conclude with certainty whether or not this sin was mortal.
What does that imply about the necessity of confessing this sin? If the sin is not mortal, it is not necessary to confess it; but if the sin is mortal and one deliberately does not confess it, one abuses the Sacrament:
So important is it that confession be entire that if the penitent confesses only some of his sins and wilfully neglects to accuse himself of others which should be confessed, he not only does not profit by his confession, but involves himself in new guilt. Such an enumeration of sins cannot be called sacramental confession; on the contrary, the penitent must repeat his confession, not omitting to accuse himself of having, under the semblance of confession, profaned the sanctity of the Sacrament.
What to do then?
The point of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is to restore and renew one's relationship with God:
It is called the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus' call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin. ... It is called the sacrament of Reconciliation, because it imparts to the sinner the love of God who reconciles.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1423–24)
As with any relationship, openness is indispensable. Thus, it is probably a good thing to confess anything you might suspect to be a mortal sin, and certainly anything that is weighing on your mind.
It is a sin of the gravest seriousness, and results in excommunication by virtue of committing the act (this is what latae sententiae means: one does not have to be declared excommunicated; procuring an abortion procures excommunication). It must be confessed. As the excommunication is not reserved to the Apostolic See, any priest with the faculty to remit the penalty may do so.
If the abortion was procured before becoming a member of the Church, excommunication is rather a moot point. However, the Church proscribes it as a grave sin and it needs to be confessed as part of the rite of joining the Church.
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2270 Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.72
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.73
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.74
2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:
You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.75
God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.76
2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. "A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,"77 "by the very commission of the offense,"78 and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law.79 The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.
72 Cf. CDF, Donum vitae I,1.
73 Jer 1:5; cf. Job 10:8-12; Psalm 22:10-11.
74 Ps 139:15.
75 Didache 2,2:Ch 248,148; cf. Ep. Bárnabae 19,5:PG 2 777; Ad D 5,6:PG 2,1173; Tertullian, Apol.¹9:PL 1,319-320.
76 GS 51 § 3.
77 CIC, can. 1398.
78 CIC, can. 1314.
79 Cf. CIC, cann. 1323-1324. 80 CDF, Donum vitae III.
Q. For who is the RCIA?
A. RCIA is for the uncatechized candidates both baptized and unbaptized for the purpose of bringing them into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Q. Are baptized but uncatechized candidates for reception into the full communion of the Roman Catholic Church obligated to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation prior to their profession of faith?
A. Candidates should receive a thorough catechesis on the sacrament of reconciliation and be encouraged in the frequent celebration of the sacrament (RCIA U.S. Statutes 27 and 36). The requirement for reconciliation is the same as for all Catholics. They would need to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation if they were guilty of serious sin (RCIA 482). - Source: B. RECEPTION INTO FULL COMMUNION | Frequently Asked Questions Concerning the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) | Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
Cf. 19. Sacrament of Reconciliation for Candidates | CANDIDATES | RCIA Handbook: A Guide to the Most Frequently Asked Questions | Diocese of Albany.
Q. What is RCIA 482?
- If the profession of faith and reception take place within Mass, the candidate, according to his or her own conscience, should make a confession of sins beforehand, first informing the confessor that he or she is about to be received into full communion. Any confessor who is lawfully approved may hear the candidate’s confession.
Since the requirement for reconciliation is the same as for all Catholics, to make a good confession, the baptized RCIA candidate must take care of the essential elements of a good confession [cf. this answer of mine] among which is making a sincere examination of conscience. Regarding abortion, the examinations ask:
Have I had an abortion or encouraged another to have one?
An honest accusation in response to this question is what needs to be confessed, giving the relevant circumstances surrounding the abortion.
I believe the other answers have covered the gravity of abortion.