There is a very heated public debate about abortion in Poland at this moment. Pro-life organizations, seeing opportunity in the fact that the current government claims to be pro-Catholic, formally proposed a complete prohibition of abortion, with the possibility to penalize women guilty of it. This proposal has, however, recently been rejected by the Parliament, with prominent members of the governing party citing the position of the episcopate, who keep reiterating that while they support any propositions to prohibit abortion, at the same time they oppose any possibility to penalize women who have performed abortion.

Is this the position of the Polish episcopate only, or is it the teaching of the whole universal Church that women guilty of performing abortion should not be penalized?

A good answer will clarify whether the position of the Church is based on moral or practical principles.

  • @Geremia Thank you for your edit, but there is one problem… I think the distinction whether the hierarchs claim something for moral or for practical reasons is important… if they cite moral reasons, then this constitutes official teaching that is binding for every member of the Church, but if they cite only practical reasons, then this is only their personal opinion that matters little more than opinions of anyone else.
    – gaazkam
    Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 16:52
  • If I understand you correctly, it seems you're alluding to the civil vs. ecclesiastical jurisdiction distinction, which I address in my answer.
    – Geremia
    Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 17:18

3 Answers 3


Canon Law already punishes Catholics involved in abortion with automatic (latæ sententiæ) excommunication:

Can. 1398 A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latæ sententiæ excommunication.

This includes all Catholics involved: the woman, her family, the abortionist, assisting nurses and doctors, and even those on medical ethics boards who approve of the direct killing of the unborn (cf. the 2010 case of the excommunication of Sr. Margaret McBride).
cf. canonist Dom Augustine's commentary on those who perform abortion.

The question the Polish bishops are dealing with is whether those involved in abortion should be penalized by civil authorities. When Church and State were not so separated as today, Catholics guilty of a crime could choose whether to be tried in an ecclesiastical court or a civil court. Perhaps the Polish bishops believe Catholic women who procure abortions do not need to be tried twice when the Church has already judged and punished them with excommunication. Non-Catholics cannot be tried in ecclesiastical courts because the Church only has jurisdiction over Catholics. Thus the question becomes: Can Church authorities tell civil authorities how to punish non-Catholics involved in abortion?

This is related to the question St. Thomas Aquinas addresses in the Treatise on Law of his Summa Theologica I-II q. 96 a. 2: "Does it belong to the human law to repress [as with punishment or coercion] all vices [e.g., abortion]?." He answers (c.):

[H]uman law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder [e.g., abortion], theft and such like.

Thus, human law should repress abortion. Exactly how it should be repressed inside the civil sphere is outside the jurisdiction of leaders of the Church and must be left to the prudence of civil authorities (cf. St. Thomas's Summa II-II q. 67 a. 1 question "Can a man justly judge one who is not subject to his jurisdiction?").

  • Many thanks for your answer. Before anything else, however, might I nitpick a little? You cite St. Thomas Aquinas, where he says law should prohibit murder; and then you conclude that law should repress murder (e.g. abortion). St. Thomas seems to equate the law prohibiting and repressing a vice; but it seems that Polish bishops want abortion prohibited, but not repressed. St. Thomas literally says it should be prohibited, but he does not literally say it should be repressed.
    – gaazkam
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 11:23
  • Now Im not disputing your answer, nor am I trying to disprove it; Im just trying to figure all of this out in my mind... Im not saying you're wrong, Im just saying there's something I don't exactly understand... Have an upvote.
    – gaazkam
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 11:24
  • @gaazkam So the Polish bishops want an unenforced law? Can there even be such a thing? The law is a teacher. St. Thomas defines law (Summa Theologica I-II q. 90 a. 1 c.) as "a rule and measure of acts, whereby man is induced to act or is restrained from acting: for 'lex' [law] is derived from "ligare" [to bind; from where the word 'legislation' comes], because it binds one to act".
    – Geremia
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 0:56
  • IIUC the bishops want the abortion to be prohibited, and they want the abortionists to be penalized; but despite they want the law to prohibit women to perform abortion on themselves, they still don't want such women to be punished. I also find this odd, but I wonder if I'm obliged to agree with my bishops…
    – gaazkam
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 21:23
  • Whether the mother is excommunicated is actually a debated point. 1917 ruled yes, but 1983 omits the phrasing that makes that clear.
    – eques
    Commented Jun 8, 2021 at 13:29

Of course the abortive mother should be prosecuted by civil law...

As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child's rights. - CCC 2273

To not punish the abortive mother is to treat murder as not worthy of punishment and will lead to the end of civilization eventually.

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    – agarza
    Commented Jun 6, 2021 at 14:55
  • 1
    Your conclusion doesn't necessarily follow from the citation. Whether the mother was excommunicated for abortion has a controversial history. The 1917 Code specifically includes "the mother not excepted" ruling one way on the debate and the 1983 Code omits that phrase (implying the oppposite).
    – eques
    Commented Jun 8, 2021 at 13:27

An abortive mother is subject to penalties according to the Catholic Church…

"All persons are bound to seek the truth in those things which regard God and His Church and by virtue of divine law are bound by the obligation and possess the right of embracing and observing the truth which they have come to know.” Can. 748 §1. This Cannon requires all persons to seek the truth in advance concerning abortion. Ignorance of the law is no excuse to lessen or excuse the crime or its resulting punishments.

“A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication”. Can. 1398 The abortive mother and her accomplices certainly do receive latae sententiae excommunication

“As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child's rights”. - CCC 2273

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