Some years ago, I became familiar with companion planting—putting different plants together in a garden or guild that produce benefits like mineral accumulation, attraction of pollinators, attraction of beneficial insect predators, repulsion of pests or larger animals, and so forth. One of the most common recommendations, even though it has a tendency to become aggressive in its own propagation, is tansy. Tansy has clusters of yellow flowers that will attract bees but repel squash bugs, mice, and Japanese beetles; and tansy draws potassium up into the topsoil and shares with neighbors. Tansy was also used, way back in the day, as an abortifacient.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179), a saint, polymath, and founder of German natural science, actually recommended tansy as an abortifacient, which may strike many as odd, because this remarkable Catholic woman would be anathematized by that same Church today for making this recommendation. The twelfth century Church was opposed to abortion, as had most Christians been—at least since the end of the first century; but not because the Church had “a consistent life ethic.” It wasn’t until the late sixteenth century, when the Catholic Church had abandoned its disbelief in witches and joined in the orgy of violence against accused witches, that the Church—following the logic of Jean Bodin—accused anyone who provided abortifacients or performed abortions of being a witch. Only then did the Church categorically call all abortions murder.
Witch-killing coevolved with the Enlightenment and shared many of the beliefs and assumptions of the so-called fathers of the Enlightenment. First case in point is Jean Bodin. A Catholic, Bodin is remembered principally as a lawyer and political philosopher. His political philosophy revolved around social order, which was perceived to be in short supply during his life (1530–96). He specifically called for the establishment of powerful central states. He called for dialogue between the various Abrahamic religions, and he placed minimal emphasis on the church as a political actor. He is rightly seen as one of the fathers of the Enlightenment, and yet his life will always be notorious for his enthusiasm for killing women as witches. [Maria] Mies writes,
The persecution of the witches was a manifestation of the rising modern society and not, as is usually believed, a remnant of the irrational “dark” Middle Ages. This is most clearly shown by Jean Bodin, the French theoretician of the new mercantilist economic doctrine. Jean Bodin was the founder of the quantitative theory of money, of the modern concept of sovereignty and of mercantilist populationism. He was a staunch defender of modern rationalism, and was at the same time one of the most vocal proponents of state ordained massacres and tortures of the witches.
Bodin believed, prefiguring Hobbes and Hegel, in an absolutist state, whose principle responsibilities included supplying human beings for the labor force. He believed that witches and midwives were enemies of the state because, according to Bodin, they caused infertility and performed abortions. He further believed that “witches” taught women birth control, a practice he equated with murder. Bodin wrote a pamphlet against purported witches that was remarkable above all for the cruelty of its recommended punishments for witchcraft. Witches should be prosecuted, according to Jean Bodin, based on the idea that women practicing witchcraft outnumbered men by a ratio of fifty to one. (Borderline, pp. 55–6)
Prior to these developments, and still more than a thousand years after the Pentecost, the modern “fetus” had not yet been invented. The unborn were seen in two phases: pre-ensoulment and post-ensoulment. Ensoulment was signaled by the quickening, the sensation of the baby’s movement in the womb, something that happens as early as fifteen weeks into a pregnancy, and as late as twenty weeks. Abortion was not considered murder until after ensoulment, or the quickening.
It wasn’t until 1588 that a Papal bull from Pope Sixtus V was issued declaring all abortion at any stage to be grounds for excommunication. Sixtus’ replacement, Pope Gregory XIV, in the face of the disruptions the bull had caused, reversed Sixtus and returned the Church to its old standard of no abortion of the “formed” unborn—that is, after the quickening. Pope Pius IX then reversed the reversal in 1869—four years after the end of the American Civil War—and this latest prohibition of all abortions was evaded using various loopholes that returned Catholics as a whole back to the quickening standard de facto, of not de jure. It was not until 1917, the same year as the Bolshevik Revolution, that Canon law decisively erased the distinction between “unformed” (pre-quickening) and “formed” (post-quickening).
“Fetus,” prior to the late fourteenth century simply meant “birth.” By the fifteenth century it came to mean unborn (at any stage, “fetus” = inside the womb). Da Vinci’s dissection of corpses led to him being the first person to publish the idea of fetal development in systematic stages. The debate about the homunculus (an unborn baby being a miniature version of its born self) wasn’t settled until the early eighteenth century. It was only by the twentieth century that developmental embryology gave us the outlines of what we call a “fetus” today—a stage of pregnancy, beginning arbitrarily at nine weeks after conception, that is now recognized in medical protocols and law, even though there are variances in actual individual pregnancies.
What is interesting here is how Church doctrine and scientific enquiry perform their dialectical dance in the twentieth century, when in 1930, Pope Pius XI declared all abortion to be “the direct murder of the innocent.” And yet by the 1960s and Vatican II, Church teaching stated: “Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception.” By 1971, we hear the first utterance of the phrase “consistent life ethic,” from Boston Archbishop Humberto Medeiros, taken up subsequently by Chicago Archbishop Joseph Bernardin (he of the Church sex abuse scandal), whereupon “consistent life ethic” came to mean opposition to abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, “unjust” war, and economic injustices that resulted in loss of life—the “seamless garment” ethic, a term coined by Catholic pacifist and civil rights advocate, Eileen Egan.
It is somewhat striking that until 1930, “life” was not the issue, and it was not consolidated in the minds of Catholics—and then others—until 1971 in the run-up to the 1973 Supreme Court judgement in Roe v. Wade, which transferred the authority to decide about abortion prior to the twenty-third week to the actual pregnant woman. Quickening was replaced by a new standard—“viability,” that is, the ability of the fetus to survive outside the womb—bowing to the equality of women with men with regard to bodily autonomy, or “the proprietary body,” at the center of liberal philosophy.
In 1980, the Church focused its arguments on “pregnant women,” or “expectant mothers,” or “rights of fathers,” for all the blatant sexism of the Church inhering in virtually every Church document on the issue of sex, still focusing on actual people and their consciences. By the 1989, however, numerous denominations in Germany had joined the call to protect LIFE in a joint statement. In English, the title of the joint statement was, “God is a Friend of Life.” In this publication, the signatories said that Life is “a complex ecosystem like a forest, the self-development of a human being from the fertilized egg cell to the newborn and its further growth.” As Barbara Duden so cryptically put it, “women are eclipsed by something entirely new—life.” The Church was no longer using the term life in any way representative of Jewish or Judeo-Christian tradition, but in the same was as Erwin Schrodinger—as a property of a thing, an abstraction.
By 1991, Pope John Paul II, speaking before 141 Cardinals in Rome, declared war on abortion, saying “death and life are involved in a momentous conflict,” little realizing how life used this was conforms utterly to this modernist abstraction, or how, in reality, death is not opposed to life, but the inevitable outcome of living.
The Church, when it comes to modernity, wants to have its cake and eat it, too. And the constant, through all these changes, as is true with every other change in the history of the Church adapting itself to politics and power, is that men decide what women are and what women can and cannot do.
Do with this as you will.