El Salvador, like other countries in the Americas, is debating reforms to its anti abortion laws. The reforms seek to amend the Criminal Code to decriminalize abortion when there is a risk to the life of the mother, when there has been rape and when the baby has a congenital malformation. Proponents of the reform argue that anti-abortion laws in El Salvador are among the harshest in the world, that they penalize the poor and that Blessed Oscar Romero would be flexible in liberalizing legal structures that punish women who through no fault of their own are, themselves, victims.
Despite the appeal of such arguments in progressive circles, the fact of the matter is that Romero, in life, rejected very similar proposals. “For the Church, the conditions invoked to decriminalize directly provoked abortion are not valid—when grave deformation of the child are predicted, rape and diminished capacity of the mother, etc.”, the then Bishop Romero wrote in an editorial in the diocesan weekly Orientación in March of 1973. “For the Church, no good, however praiseworthy, can be pursued if to achieve it, one must first commit an immoral action; and directly provoked abortion is an intrinsically immoral action [.]”
Throughout his priestly life, including his years at the head of the archdiocese, Romero consistently opposed abortion. Sixty years before the ascent of Pope Francis to the throne of Peter, Romero lashed out against what Francis would call the “ideological colonization” by which rich countries impose legal abortion on poor countries. “It is not surprising that [in the] secular societies of England and the United States,” Father Romero wrote in an editorial in the church publication Chaparrastique in August 1953, where “pleasure is the rule of morality, divorce, adultery, methods of contraception [and] therapeutic abortion, are declared lawful.” But when “foreign specialists have come to our country to teach scientific methods of birth control,” he resumed in a Chaparrastique editorial in December 1962, “if those ‘scientific methods’ include abortive practices of any kind and those specialists in the suppression of life seek to establish a foothold in our hospitals, where those crimes are already being frequently committed, we have the duty to remind them that all abortion is forbidden[.]”
As archbishop, the essential point for Romero that led him to reject abortion was that it “mutilates” an essential aspect in the nature of the person and the relationships between persons. Romero writes in an editorial in Orientación on June 17, 1979 that “to unite two beings in love who give life to a new being” is the “great principle” that requires “that any means through which man seeks to frustrate the fecundity of such act—direct interruption, sterilization and any contraceptive medicine or instrument—is illegal. And in a greater way abortion, which is true homicide.” Therefore, establishing “a population policy on this basis of sin,” writes Romero in particularly forceful words, “is to castrate the people.”
Romero sees abortion as a symptom of the same malady that imposes social injustice: “preventing children, homosexuality, premarital relationships, abortion, prostitution, all place bodily functions merely at the service of pleasure and selfishness” (November 6, 1977 Homily). It is part of a hedonism that Romero analyzes through the post-conciliar theology of Old Men and New Men: “Christ has taught you to abandon the former way of life, of the old man corrupted by desires of the flesh, the old man who is not the Spirit,” Romero preached in his homily for the Feast of the Transfiguration in August 1979. “Don the new human condition created in the image of God, justice and holiness. This is the new man.”
The New Man eschews abortion because it negates the dignity that God gives to each person. Abortion rejects divine love: “God is the beautiful image of the pregnant mother; God had me in the womb and he loved me and predestined me, and he thought of my days and of my death” (c.f., Rm 8:29-30); by contrast, “the mother who aborts is not faithful to the love she should feel, like God in eternity, before the child is born” (July 30, 1978). Abortion also disfigures the family, which was “made to be a mirror of the law of God, to reflect its tenderness and its fertility, so that the children born there feel truly welcomed in love and not like something that is discarded and which causes inconvenience” (December 31, 1978). It also spurns the gift of life: “That entire terrible campaign of contraceptives, of abortions, are sins against the faith of Abraham; against the God who, as a gift, makes men and women fertile in their core” (June 11, 1978).
Romero rejected the notion that abortion offers relief to the situation of the poor. To “only seek to avoid births and worse still, to promote abortions, [is] nothing more than putting a sinful patch on a problem as complicated as our social situation,” he wrote in his Journal on June 11, 1979.
Instead of being part of the solution for the poor, for the reasons mentioned above, abortion is part of the structural sin that oppresses the people. “The military and the kidnapper both kill in an institutionalized way, and so does the mother who orders an abortion,” Romero stated in a homily on December 28, 1977. For Romero, abortion is part of the social sin that infiltrates into the innermost fabric of Salvadoran society: “There is corruption within marriage itself, which has been turned into a brothel,” he denounced on October 2, 1977, and “we can count in thousands the abortions in the hospitals and medical clinics, while trips abroad are bought and sold, which include an abortion.”
Romero considers abortion a slippery slope that can lead the poor to a far graver precariousness. “Brothers and sisters, the theory used by Hitler in Germany to eliminate everything considered not to have utility is coming,” he warned on October 9, 1977. “If a fetus is inconvenient, which is already human life in the womb of a woman, an old person might also be considered inconvenient when there is no sense of charity at home. And it is nothing more than a logical process. If abortion is logical, then this process of elimination is logical,” he said.
“The morality of life that begins in the womb of a woman, the fidelity of marriage, are old and new,” Romero said on January 7, 1979. “And the Church has to defend them even if she has to lose the applause and suffer the rebukes of the public.”