The way the excommunication for abortion works is this.
Canon 1398 provides that, "a person who procures a successful
abortion incurs an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication." This means that at
the very moment that the abortion is successfully accomplished, the woman and all formal
conspirators are excommunicated.
An abortion is defined as "the killing of the foetus, in whatever
way or at whatever time from the moment of conception" (Pontifical Council for the
Interpretation of Legislative Texts, published in the "Acts of the Apostolic
See" vol. 80 (1988), 1818). This definition applies to any means, including drugs, by
which a human being present in the woman is killed. Thus, once a woman knows she is
pregnant the intentional killing of the new life within her is not only murder but an
excommunicable offense. A woman who only thinks she might be pregnant has a grave
responsibility to find out and to protect the possible life within. Any action to end a
"possible" pregnancy while probably not an excommunicable offense would be
callous disregard for life and gravely sinful.
Conspirators who incur the excommunication can be defined as those who
make access to the abortion possible. This certainly includes doctors and nurses who
actually do it, husbands, family and others whose counsel and encouragement made it
morally possible for the woman, and those whose direct practical support made it possible
(financially, driving to the clinic etc.).
Clearly those who think the availability of chemical abortions will
settle the abortion issue are deluded. It will only widen to drug manufacturers,
pharmacists and family physicians those guilty of grave sin and subject to
excommunication. [It should also be noted that many contraceptive pills are already
abortifacient in operation. Theoretically, the knowing use of such a pill for its
abortafacient purpose could also subject one to excommunication. Pill manufacturers have
recently been touting this capability of their deadly wares.]
NOTE WELL To actually incur the excommunication one
must know that it is an excommunicable offense at the time of the abortion. Canon 1323
provides that the following do not incur a sanction, those who are not yet 16, are unaware
of a law, do not advert to it or are in error about its scope, were forced or had an
unforeseeable accident, acted out of grave fear, or who lacked the use of reason (except
culpably, as by drunkenness). Thus a woman forced by an abusive husband to have an
abortion would not incur an excommunication, for instance, whereas someone culpably under
the influence of drugs or alcohol would (canon 1325).
In any case, whether one has been excommunicated or not, the sin of
abortion must be confessed as the taking of innocent human life (5th Commandment). If the
penitent did not know about this law at the time of the abortion then he or she was NOT
excommunicated. If the person knew about the law but there were extenuating circumstances
(such as mentioned above concerning c. 1323) then these factors should be mentioned to the
confessor. He will say whether he has the faculty from the bishop to absolve from this
excommunication or whether he even needs to. If he does not, he will privately and
secretly obtain absolution from the bishop or send the person to a confessor who has that
A person who believes they have been excommunicated must refrain from
Holy Communion until both absolution for the sin and absolution for the excommunication
has been given.
One complicating factor for anyone in this situation is that
intentionally withholding mortal sin (abortion) or knowledge of one's excommunication
invalidates ALL the absolutions for other sins given since the time of the intentionally
overlooked sin. Culpably withholding mortal sin or an excommunication means that even
after the priest says the words of absolution because of dishonesty on the penitent's
part, the sin has not been absolved. Absolution is not magic, it depends upon sincere
repentance from all known mortal sins and a firm purpose of amendment. Such sins would
need to be confessed again, as part of an integral (complete and honest) confession. This
is not the case if the person did not know that what they did was sinful in the eyes of
God and the Church, but only found out this out latter. Since they did not withhold from
confession what they knew to be sinful their prior confessions are valid.
The Church makes every effort to make Penance available and obliges
priests to make anonymity possible as well (c. 964). There is really no valid excuse for
delaying one's full return to the sacraments. All those who have had abortions should come
home to Christ and the Church.
Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL