RELIGION & ABORTION
In examining religious opinions on abortion, one must find common ground on which to form a foundation of comparison. With most of the religions to date, that common ground lies on the argument of whether or not a fetus is an actual person. Some religions protest by saying a fetus isn’t a conscious being – therefore there is no loss in doing away with it. But for those religions that do believe there is a life – or any spiritual being — in a fetus, it is clearly a crime to have an abortion.
Through research an overall conclusion can be provided that most earlier religions, that is those before 1400 A.D., relied on the opinion of the doctor to determine whether abortion was right or not. If abortion would harm the mother, or the child, or both, then the abortion was acceptable. In Christianity, this was only true in some denominations, such as Baptists and Methodists. In these cases, a woman was not disgraced after having an abortion unless she went against the advice of a professional. However as Christianity has developed, this opinion has remained constantly opposite in Catholicism. Catholic theorists in particular have expressed intense, concrete views on the subject. These views clearly have more to do with a change in attitude regarding the moral status of a fetus than a change in attitude regarding sex. It is important not to confuse the two.
The question “Why was abortion condemned in Catholicism?” was answered by Catholic theorist James McCarthy: “Many people believe that the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion stems from its conviction that a new human person exists from the first moment of conception and that this newly formed person has as much right to exist as anyone else. It is clear that this is not now, nor ever been official Church teaching on this matter….Roman Church leadership has sought to maintain, in one form or another, a link between sexual activity and procreation, and thus it follows that even if the fetus were not a human being, Catholics would still view abortion as evil” (Dombrowski 18). So from this we can safely say that Catholics view, and have always viewed, abortion as evil. Then again, we are relying on something uncertain – how you determine the humanity of a being. Clearly Catholics do not view a fetus as a human being.
This being known, it doesn’t make sense that a Catholic church should practice fetal baptisms, which were practiced primarily in the 1700s. They were obviously practiced by churches with views much less forward than McCarthy’s. This is simply one instance where a religion contradicts itself: McCarthy, an acclaimed Catholic theorist, claims that a fetus is not a human being. Yet fetal baptisms are performed on miscarriages (Dombrowski 93). Miscarriages – thought not fully developed, are apparently human enough to undergo baptism and be saved by Jesus Christ.
Once again it is necessary to state that most of the religious opinions are based on when human life begins. In the case of Hinduism, there is no acceptance of abortion. According to the Vedas, abortion is a sinful activity. There is no question of when a fetus becomes a person. Or even when morality is reached (when a baby is actually born). Abortion in Hinduism is evil in all cases, despite all circumstances. However, some denominations and modernized Hindu groups approve of the practice.
Judaism has some quite interesting views as well, incorporating legal status of the embryo/fetus. According to Jewish Law, a fetus is not considered a full human being and has no personality of its own. While recognizing the potentiality of becoming human, the Talmud states clearly of the fetus ‘lav nefesh hu—it is not a person.’” (Miller).
Apparently in Judaism there are many more factors aside of the legal status of the embryo or fetus. Also significant are the time of ensoulment, and conditions under which a therapeutic abortion may take place. In terms of ensoulment – at what moment does the soul enter the body? In Jewish legal tradition, there are several theories. The most famous is from the Talmud and concerns a very strange conversation between Roman Emperor Antoninus and Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, the compiler of the Mishna, the first post-Biblical compilation of Jewish law and tradition.
An excerpt from the conversation: “Antoninus asked Rabbi Judah: ‘From When is the neshamah (soul) endowed in man: from the time of birth, or from the time of conception?’ Rabbi Judah answered: ‘From the time of the birth.’ The Emperor then asked. ‘Can meat remain three days without salt and not purify?’” (Miller). As odd as this dialogue seems, Rabbi Judah apparently understood it. According to the Talmud, it can take as long as three days from the moment of intercourse until the ovum is fertilized. What then, keeps the sperm (i.e. meat) alive during that time? There must be a vitalizing life force (i.e. salt) present. From the conclusion of their discussion, it appears that due to the emperor’s questions, Rabbi Judah changed his mind and adopted the position that ensoulment occurs at conception.
Secondly in Judaism, conditions for therapeutic Abortions are a factor. “If a woman is in hard labor (that threatens her life), one dismembers the fetus within her and removes it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over its life. Once the greater part of it emerges it may not be touched, for we do not set aside one life for another” (Miller). To clarify, ‘the greater part of it’ refers to the emergence of the forehead. There is a principle here that arrives at the conclusion of a justified abortion. This is that the fetus remains only a potential human life until its emergence from the birth canal. Therefore one must sacrifice the potential life in order to save an existing one.
Though it seems clear here, the issue of Judaism and Abortion is not so simple. This is due to the reluctance of Jewish legal authorities to establish a single principle by which to determine the morality of an abortion. The issue is both complex and multi-faceted, with roots going back to the bible.
The Bible, on the other hand, has several things to say on the issue. “When men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.” (Bible Exodus 21:22) ‘Life for life’ would indicate that a miscarriage is the loss of life. Moreover, it is equivalent to the life of the ‘responsible’. Therefore in this case the bible indicates that a miscarried fetus is equivalent to the death of an already-existent man.
Other Bible scholars may state that trying to simplify what the bible says on abortion is improper. “ . . .American people are being told that the Bible condemns abortion. This invocation of the bible tends to simplify, for many people, what is actually a very complex issues. It becomes a matter of doing God’s will, no matter what the consequences might be for women, for their potential offspring, or for society.” (Ward 1)
If a conclusion is derived merely from what is stated here, the bible is pro-choice. That is, only if pro-choice coincides with God’s will. Since no one other than God knows God’s will, it is very hard to determine the bible’s stance on abortion beyond saying it’s ‘conditionally acceptable.’ Unfortunately, no one but God knows what those conditions are.
Buddhism has a more general, relaxed approach to abortion. This is mainly because Buddha tried to get away from making rules about anything. He told his followers not to believe anything either he or any other religious authority said simply on trust. The emphasis in his teaching was on investigating the teachings – testing them against personal experience to see if within yourself you find them to be true. Buddha’s First Precept states ‘I will not harm any living creature.’ Note that this doesn’t apply only to humans, so the question of whether or not a fetus is human doesn’t arise. If it accepted that a fetus is alive, it should not be harmed.
The whole Buddhist approach to ethics in general can be summed up in one word – compassion. This is more important in Buddhism than any rules or doctrines. Compassion for the fetus is necessary, but also for the mother. Researching the issue leads me to believe that if a Buddhist felt a woman had made a wrong decision in having an abortion, they should extend compassion to her and not be judgmental. Most Buddhists feel that in principle abortion is wrong, or at least regrettable. However Buddhists believe one should always examine the circumstances and allow for exceptions, and not be condemning of those who arrive at a different conclusion.
All of these religious views have had a great impact on society. For example, most of the United States population claims to be Catholic (Dombrowski 185). It would be hard to say that religious factors are insignificant considering Roman Catholicism is the leading opponent of abortion (Abernethy 15). When a woman in the United States decides to take upon herself the demanding task of receiving an abortion, it is quite serious. Of course the medical aspect has become easier and less painful over the years, but there is nothing that has reduced the emotional trauma that ensues. This trauma is experienced mainly by the would-be-mother, but may also affect any member of the family that has knowledge of the abortion. When this knowledge is spread to the woman’s religious community, most likely Catholic, some offer support, but most others simply turn and shake their head.
All religions offer firm support for their views of abortion, but very few religions stick with their concrete views. Hindu’s were very firm, yet now some modern groups approve of it. Catholics have always been against it, but other denominations of Christianity approve, so they aren’t credible either. So it seems that religion will always provide exceptions for its theories that aren’t supposed to have any. Is abortion right? Think for yourself. Turning to religion leads only to confusion.
Dombrowski, Daniel A. A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion.
Illinois: Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 2000.
Ward, F. Is the Fetus a Person? The Bible’s View. 15 Jan. 2001. Religion and Choice
February 2001 .
New York: World Book, Inc. 1994.