Does Abortion Really Incur Excommunication?

Brian Clowes
and Sarah Reusch
October 7, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Human Life International

What Is Excommunication?

Excommunication is a sanction that deprives a Catholic of all participation in the common blessings of the society of the Church.1 It is the most serious penalty the Church can inflict and is used only in the most severe cases. The excommunicated person remains a Catholic because his baptism cannot be nullified, but he is a kind of spiritual exile, removed from the benefits enjoyed by the members of the Church.

Excommunication: Censure, Not Punishment

Though the media tries hard to portray it as punishment, excommunication is instead intended to be medicinal . Like regular medicine, it is intended for a person's own good - not to cause him harm. Its purposes are to serve as a warning, to correct the Catholic and bring him back to the Sacraments of the Church, and to cause other Catholics to avoid his pernicious influence. In fact, the Church does not want the person to remain in this state for long, but ardently desires that he make amends and return to full communion. Thus, excommunication is an act of charity!

The Authority to Excommunicate Belongs to the Church

Some dissenters strangely claim that the Church does not have the right to excommunicate. However, the Catholic Church has always possessed the right to excommunicate since her founding by Jesus Christ, who said "If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (Matthew 18:17).2

The Church is an institution, a society of persons, and must have the right to remove those who deliberately oppose the goals of that institution. In fact, every institution must have the right to excommunicate its members, or it will either be incapable of accomplishing its stated mission or might even cease to exist altogether. An armed force can remove members who refuse to perform their duties as soldiers; a legal or medical firm can fire people who are incompetent or who deliberately undermine its goals; and a company that employs pilots or truckers can remove them if they insist upon showing up for work drunk, thereby posing a danger to others.

Abortion and Excommunication

The teachings of the Catholic Church on abortion could not be clearer. Only a person who is willfully blinding himself to the facts could make the ridiculous claim that there is "room for a diversity of opinion" within the Catholic Church on abortion.

The Church not only does not want to change her teaching on abortion - she cannot change it, because this critical issue deals with fundamental questions of faith, morals, and ethics.

Canon Number 1398 states, in Latin and English, Qui abortum procurat, effectu secuto, in excommunicationem, latae sententiae, incurrat (Those who successfully abort a living human fetus bring on themselves instant excommunication).6

Qui abortum procurat means anyone who works to kill a human fetus in any manner at all. This is not only the abortionist; it may be the boyfriend or husband who drives the mother to the abortion mill, pays for the abortion in full or in part, or even advises that abortion may be an option in her case. Latae sententiae means that the person brings instant excommunication upon himself or herself with his act. No solemn pronouncement need be made by the Church or a bishop or priest, and no one else need even know about the abortion. For automatic excommunication to take place, the woman must freely choose abortion. If this is the case, she is cut off from until she sincerely repents and makes a good confession. This sanction also applies to the abortionist, attending nurse or counselor, and anyone else who assists in the abortion.7

Excommunication for Abortion is Rare!

Excommunication in the event of abortion is not so cut and dried as one might think. In other words, a particular canon cannot be used or applied out of context any more than a verse from Scripture can be used out of context. There are conditions that apply!

Canons 1323 and 1325 clarify that a woman who has an abortion is not worthy of excommunication if she is not Catholic, under sixteen years of age, is unaware that abortion is an excommunicable offense, was forced to have the abortion, acted out of grave fear for her life, or lacked the ability to reason, except culpably. So, if a girl was compelled by her parents to have an abortion, she would not be excommunicated, but if she were drunk (culpably compromising her reason), she would be. In other words, in order to incur excommunication for the crime of abortion a woman must be Catholic, at least sixteen years of age, possessing full knowledge that abortion is an excommunicable offense and full reason, under no extraneous pressure to have an abortion, and in no serious fear for her life.

Given the above provisions, the tricky question is this: how many women who have an abortion actually incur excommunication? All the provisions must be in place for excommunication to occur. But how many women who have an abortion are free from extraneous pressures, much less actually know what an abortion is? If even one of the conditions listed above for excommunication is missing, a person simply does not incur the censure attached to the crime. Returning to basic Catholic catechism, the same is said for the state of mortal sin: for one to commit a mortal sin (such as murder!), three conditions must be met: the act must be gravely wrong, the person must know it is fully wrong, and he or she must choose to do it anyway. All three conditions must be met or the sin would not be mortal.

A Shocking Change - or Was It?

On November 20, 2016, Pope Francis wrote a letter, Misericordia et Misera , in which he granted to all priests the power to absolve the sin of abortion and thereby lift excommunication. The letter modified Canon 1331, which had formerly limited the forgiveness of abortion to the Pope, the bishop of the place or priests authorized by them. Of course, the media wildly exploited this letter of the pontiff's, suggesting to the world that the Church had changed her mind on what she had always before considered an excommunicable crime.

On the contrary, Pope Francis reiterated the Church's stance on abortion, restating the unchanging fact that abortion is a very grave sin and pointing instead to his intention to extend mercy to all. Interestingly, the pope did not point out the extreme rarity of cases in which a woman who has had an abortion has been excommunicated in the first place. For, as this article points out above, such a case is indeed not the norm and renders his action in Misericordia et Misera reasonable, to say the least.

Those Who Assist with Abortions

Canon 1398 (quoted above) and Section 2 of Canon 1329 outline quite clearly the penalty for assisting in an abortion. The latter Canon states:

Accomplices, even though not mentioned in the law or precept, incur the same penalty [ latae sententiae excommunication] if, without their assistance, the crime would not have been committed, and if the penalty is of such a nature as to be able to affect them; otherwise, they can be censured with ferendae sententiae [inflicted by clergy] penalties."

In fact, the United States Catholic Bishops have stated quite clearly that one cannot be Catholic and support even the general concept of abortion: "At this particular time abortion has become the fundamental human rights issue for all men and women of good will.... No Catholic can responsibly take a 'pro-choice' stand when the 'choice' involves the taking of innocent human life."8 In other words, the term "pro-choice Catholic" is the ultimate oxymoron.

Some pro-abortionists try their best to create the false impression that Catholics can believe anything they want and still be "good Catholics." For example, Catholics for [a Free] Choice claims, "If you carefully examine your conscience and then decide that an abortion is the most moral act you can do at this time, you're not committing a sin. Therefore, you're not excommunicated. Nor need you tell it in confession since, in your case, abortion is not a sin."3

Then we have Pamela Maraldo, former President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who said, "I go to church on Sunday but do not subscribe to many of the basic tenets of the Church. That does not mean I am any less a Catholic."4

But we know what Maraldo would do if one of her department executives told her, "I come to work at Planned Parenthood every day but do not subscribe to many of its basic beliefs. I do not believe in convenience or third-trimester abortions, and I do not believe that we have any business handing out contraceptives in school. That does not mean I am any less 'pro-choice' than anyone else."

You can bet that Maraldo would fire ("excommunicate") this person on the spot. In fact, Planned Parenthood has very little tolerance for individual or corporate members that do not conform exactly to its philosophy and directives.5

In summary, the people who join any kind of institution are united for a common purpose, whatever it may be. Those who obstinately oppose this purpose hinder the goals of the organization and must be removed.

The Case of Chemical Abortion

We must also address "silent abortions" when considering excommunication. The RU-486 abortion pill (mifepristone) is designed to cause an abortion up until about seven weeks of a confirmed pregnancy, so there is no question that using it leads to excommunication just as if the abortion had been procured surgically.

The vast majority of abortions are now performed with chemicals, not with surgery. All birth control pills, injectables such as Depo-Provera, "emergency contraception" like Plan B, insertables like Norplant, Nexplanon or Jadelle, and intrauterine devices (IUDs) cause early abortions some of the time. Estimates vary widely, but women using these methods are believed to conceive at least once a year on average, and these new human beings cannot implant in the uterus because its lining has been rendered hostile.

Since most women are completely unaware of the abortifacient effects of these devices and drugs, they would not generally be at risk of excommunication.

However, the Pontifical Commission for the Authentic Interpretation of the Code of Canon Law states that abortion is not only "the expulsion of the immature fetus," but is also "the killing of the same fetus in any way and at any time from the moment of conception."9

Some may claim that the probability of fertilization in any specific marital act is very low, and that a woman using an abortifacient cannot know when she will conceive. This is true, but irrelevant. There are two evil moral objects associated with the use of abortifacients:

  1. The denial of the procreative meaning of the sexual act (which is the moral object of contraception)
  2. The denial of the right to life of a preborn child (which is the moral object of abortion)

What makes the act intrinsically evil is not whether or not the objective is achieved; it is the objective (the act) itself.

All pro-lifers, whether they be activists or not, should not only be concerned with saving the lives of preborn children, but with saving souls as well. This requires us to educate Catholic relatives and friends about the abortifacient nature of most types of "birth control" and the penalties attached to their use.




Abortion still carries the penalty of excommunication for those who fulfill ALL the provisions of Canon 1323, as well as those whose cooperation played an essential part in procuring the abortion. We must not forget that "abortion" does not simply mean surgical abortion but includes chemical abortion as well. As Catholics, excommunication is not something to take lightly. Rather, we have a duty to know this law and to explain it, as the occasion permits, to misled fellow Catholics. Educating others about the nature of abortion itself goes a long way in preventing both abortion itself as well as the excommunication due its crime.