The answer to that question is apparently not! Most people don’t know this, but for many centuries, official Catholic doctrine held that abortion was allowable up until “quickening.” That’s when mother senses the fetus kicking in her stomach. Quickening occurs around the third or fourth month of pregnancy, around the end of the first trimester in modern phrasing. So the Church allowed abortion until the first trimester.
At that point, it was assumed to be alive, or human, or something. Thing was, abortion was rare back in those days, just like Hillary Clinton wants it to be. Before the age of antibiotics and disinfectants, abortion was not common, it was quite dangerous, and women often died during the procedure. Nevertheless, it was done. The era of surgery began long before the 20th Century.
I don’t have access to any Church doctrine from those days, so I’m not sure what they based it on.
But if you read Dante, you get some glimpses into what they may have been thinking. Dante, writing in the early 1200’s, was not a Pope or a Church father, but he was an extremely religious Catholic. That is clear in all of his writings. He lived his life this way too, and after he moved away from Florence to the east, he was well-known for cursing and throwing stones at fellow citizens who he thought were sinning for some reason or another.
Hence, Dante’s works are good for glimpsing Church doctrine in the early days, since Dante won’t support any teachings not sanctioned by the Church.
In Dante, there are passages which discuss the development of human life and the soul. They are very interesting for a peek into what the early Church felt about human life and its beginnings. Dante’s version, like much of his thinking, is very Aquinian – via St. Thomas Aquinas, the great early Christian philosopher who wrote in the 1100’s.
Dante’s version of the beginnings of human life (and the development of the human soul) is not exactly in accord with modern science, but nevertheless, it is straight from Aquinas. Early peoples had some knowledge of conception and the development of the fetus in the womb. Women miscarried back then, and when you look at the material, you can see the fetus in the rejected uterine matter. From there, they could postulate various things.
First of all, soon after conception, the beginnings of human life take shape.
Stage 1: Dante says that in the beginning, the fetus is animate, but it is not even yet an animal. It is more like a plant; it is “vegetative.” This seems strange, but what he means is in terms of consciousness. To say it is like a plant means it is alive, but it can’t think. Plants are alive, but they don’t seem to think. In other words, it has the soul of a plant. I assume that killing a fetus at this stage would be as sinful in Church terms as killing a plant.
Stage 2: Later the fetus changes into a form that is part-animal and part-plant. This seems odd again, but he’s again speaking in terms of consciousness, or soul. Dante describes this fetus as being like a sea anemone, or as having the soul of a sea anemone. A sea anemone is an animal that looks and somewhat acts like a plant. It probably has a brain, but clearly it’s none too bright. It’s nearly transitional between plant and animal metaphysically speaking.
It’s vegetative (alive) and it has elementary sensory abilities, but not much beyond that. Killing a fetus at this stage would be as sinful in Church terms as killing a sea anemone.
Stage 3: After that, the fetus changes into an animal. But it is a non-human animal. Once again he speaks metaphysically. This means that it can’t really reason or think intellectually, or that it has no consciousness. It’s like a dog or a cat, or it has the soul of a cat or a dog. Killing a fetus at this point would be as sinful in Church terms as killing a dog or a cat.
Stage 4: Finally, at some point, the fetus is touched by God through some sort of mechanism and it is given a soul. At that point, it becomes a human being, since non-human animals lack souls.
It follows from this that the Church believed that in Stages 1-3, the fetus was not yet a human being. It was presumably for this reason that abortion was allowed until quickening.
The Catholic Church is derided as reactionary, but in some ways it is more progressive than at least fundamentalist Protestantism. Recall that the original Protestants rebelled because they thought that the Church had drifted too far away from Biblical teaching. They were a back to basics movement sort of like the Salafists in Islam.
There is a corollary between the Muslim Shia and Catholicism and between the Muslim Sunni and Protestants. The Sunni are also, like Protestants, a back to basics faction, this time of Islam, that traditionally believes that everything we need to know about Islam was codified in the Quran and Hadiths back in 800 or so. Anything else is deviation at best, heresy at worst. The Shia, on the other hand, feel that Islam is open to continuous interpretation by the high priest caste, which are the Ayatollahs or mullahs.
Ayatollah is derided as a reactionary, but he made some interesting judgments. One was that transsexualism is compatible with Islam, but homosexuality is not. Homosexuality was felt to be a choice and hence a sin, while transsexuals were created by God. There is a top Ayatollah who used to be a man and turned into a woman. Some other big Ayatollah has married her and they are now man and wife.
There is also the phenomenon of temporary marriage. In the religious city of Qom in Iran, there are many institutes of Islamic studies. Religious students come there from all over Iran to study. The city is teeming with female prostitutes. In some areas, the prostitutes gather, and young male students hook up with them. Then they go find a friendly neighborhood Ayatollah who gives them a temporary marriage of one or two days. Then they go off to do the deed in the local cemetery or some such place.
In Lebanon, the Ayatollah Fadlallah is said to be rather progressive as these fellows go. He issued a famous ruling that said that female masturbation was allowed by Islam that caused quite a stir in Lebanon.
It’s things like temporary marriage and the transsexual Ayatollah that drive Sunnis up the wall. The Sunnis, like Protestants, have no religious leaders who make official interpretations or reinterpretations of doctrine. There’s nothing to be interpreted. All the interpretation has already been done.
Sometimes mullahs issue rulings of clarification, mostly to say that this or that is a sin, or to condemn this or that. Some of these come out of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. They carry a lot of weight, but most Sunnis don’t pay much attention to such rulings. A lot of fatwas get issued, but those are just condemnations. And most of the folks issuing fatwas, like Osama bin Laden, have no right to do so. Mr. bin Laden is no scholar of Islam, hence he’s not allowed to issue fatwas, and if he does, they carry no weight.
The Catholic Church is similar to the Shia in that they also have church leaders who reinterpret doctrine for the faithful. In this case, it is the Papacy. The Catholic Church reserves the right to reinterpret religious doctrine as times change. Hence they changed course and endorsed Galileo after initially opposing him.
And recently the Pope declared that evolution is compatible with Catholicism, whereas tens of millions of Protestants are still Creationists. Catholic Creationists probably don’t even exist. Why are there so many Protestant Creationists? There’s nothing in Protestant doctrine telling them it’s nonsense, and there’s not much, if any, official Protestant doctrine anyway.
So neither the Shia or Catholics are necessarily as reactionary as they are often made out to be.