Abortion, Faith, and Religious Liberty
by Raj Attiken | 23 August 2022 |
The controversies about abortion have escalated to a renewed pitch in the United States following the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022, declaring that the constitutional right to abortion, upheld for nearly a half century, no longer exists. State legislatures and courts in some states have also taken actions to outlaw abortions, some forms of contraception, and even travel to other states to receive abortion services. In some regions, pregnancy loss through miscarriage is being classified as abortion. Health professionals potentially face criminal prosecution for providing care to pregnant people.
Like many of life’s moral dilemmas, abortion evokes a range of emotions and convictions over a wide range of perspectives. The intensity of feelings is understandable: most of us respect the value of human life and support efforts to preserve life.
And therein lies the roots of our perplexity: When does life begin? That is the central disagreement fueling the decades-long debate over abortion rights. Is a fetus a human person? At what stage of development does an embryo become human? Does the notion that the fetus, even if it is not a human person, potentially has a valuable future give it a status worthy of protection? Is there a difference – in terms of a human life – between an early abortion and a late-stage abortion? Is abortion murder, as some have argued? And what about potential harm to the mother’s life?
People who might terminate a pregnancy live in every religious community, even in those that do not officially sanction abortion. Yet many of the arguments for and against abortion are rooted in specific religious views held by individuals and faith communities. Individual conscience, religious freedom, and social justice issues are, therefore, all wrapped up in the arguments about abortion.
The Adventist Church’s official position, as stated in the document approved at the 2019 Annual Council, is that “God considers the unborn child as human life.” This is a more restrictive position than the one the church held earlier. Some question if, in fact, the sixth commandment, “You must not murder,” can be applied to an unborn fetus—whether it should not also be applied to the woman whose pregnancy might be endangering her life.
Yet the Adventist Church’s advocacy of religious liberty for ourselves and others should prod us to wrestle with the potential religious liberty implications of abortion. Can we advocate for a particular stance on abortion that does not impinge on the freedoms and religious liberties of individuals and religious communities that hold a different view on the matter?
Religions do not agree on abortion. While conservative Christians typically oppose abortion, many other Christians – and many other faiths – recognize the right of women to terminate a pregnancy under certain circumstances.
According to Catholic Church doctrine, abortion is considered murder and therefore a grave sin that could result in excommunication. Protestant Christians hold views as varied as the permissibility of abortion on demand, the opposite extreme of all abortion as murder, and a middle ground admitting that it is difficult to determine when human life begins. Many support the idea that abortion access should be allowed under certain conditions, including damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of a mother. According to a survey of abortion views by faith, performed by the Pew Research Center, nearly twice as many evangelical Protestants (63%) oppose legal abortion compared to mainline Protestants (33%). In contrast, 83% of American Jews and 55% of American Muslims say abortion should be legal, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.
Christians who regard the embryo as a full human being with full moral rights from the time of conception generally appeal to some biblical texts in support of their view. Among them are these:
You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book” (Psalm 139:15,16 NLT).
While some Christians cite this passage as proof, it is important to know that Jews view the Psalms as a book of poetry. Here’s another:
The Lord called me before my birth; from within the womb he called me by name. . . And now the Lord speaks – the one who formed me in my mother’s womb to be his servant” (Isaiah 49:1,5 NLT).
If these passages imply that a fetus, from the time of conception, is a human being, then aborting that fetus would be an act of murder – forbidden in numerous biblical passages.
Traditional Jewish teachings view life as beginning at birth and not at conception. Judaism has viewed abortion as morally acceptable, and even required in some circumstances, particularly where the mother’s life is at risk. Many American Jewish leaders see anti-abortion laws as an infringement on their faith’s freedoms because they contradict Jewish laws drawn from the Torah, the Mishnah and the Talmud, the most sacred and authoritative texts in the tradition. The fetus is regarded as “mere water”—according to the Talmud—for the first 40 days and as part of the pregnant person’s body for the duration of the pregnancy after that. While the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jewish movements openly advocate for the right to safe and accessible abortions, the Orthodox branches are less unified on the issue.
Jewish tradition finds guidance regarding the termination of a pregnancy in Exodus 21:22-25. Two men are shown fighting and accidentally strike a nearby pregnant woman. A miscarriage happens and the fetus is lost. The punishment is a monetary fine, paid to the woman’s husband. In the ensuing scene in this passage, the woman herself is harmed or killed, and the punishment is retributive: an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for a hand, a life for a life. The common rabbinical interpretation of this passage is that the men did not commit murder in causing the miscarriage and death of the fetus, since the fetus is not a person. The implied principle is that a woman has the full status of a person, while the fetus – though valued – has a lesser status. Because there’s no expectation that the person who caused the miscarriage is liable for murder, Jewish scholars argue that this proves a fetus is not considered a separate person or soul.
Although there are different opinions among Islamic scholars about when life begins and when abortion is permissible, many contend that until a fetus is thought to become a living soul –which is said to occur after the first 120 days – a pregnancy could be terminated. After that, abortion should be permissible only in instances in which a mother’s life is in danger or in cases of rape. If an abortion is performed after the first four months, the aborted fetus is to be given the same ritual of washing and shrouding required of all deceased persons, ahead of burial. In addition, anyone who touches the fetus must perform a form of ablution, or cleansing.
Buddhists generally believe that life begins at conception and that killing is morally wrong, although there is no official position on abortion among Buddhists. Buddhists generally are reluctant, however, to intervene in a woman’s personal decision to terminate a pregnancy. Buddhism may discourage abortion, but it also discourages imposing rigid moral absolutes.
Both Buddhism and Hinduism hold to the concept of ahimsa – nonviolence – and abortion is thought to violate this value, unless a mother’s health is at risk. The general view within Hinduism is that the correct course of action in any given situation is the one that causes the least harm to those involved. Within Hinduism, conception, development, and birth of a child are seen as sacred events, often honored by a ceremony marking these rites of passage.
Even a cursory review of the views on abortion held by various religious communities leads us to recognize the near impossibility of arriving at a unified religious answer – even a Christian answer — to the question. In this context, privileging one religious view over others robs everyone else of their religious freedom.
Conscience & social justice
If the issue of when a fetus becomes a human person doesn’t itself create huge difficulties in the abortion debate, we have the additional issues of individual conscience and social justice. The freedom of choice that we humans enjoy can be viewed as a form of life-affirming autonomy that is not the product of a church dogma or of a courtroom, but rather as a basic spiritual disposition implied in the “image-bearer” inference in the Genesis 1 account.
Liberty, in this sense, is a God-given freedom to respond to God without intervention of the state or other powers. Women, therefore, are moral agents who have the capacity, right, and responsibility to make decisions as to whether or not abortion is justified in their specific circumstances. We impinge on personal freedoms when individuals are denied the possibility of accessing abortion services and medical procedures according to their personal needs and choices.
Additionally, many people in every religious tradition believe in abortion justice – that pursuing a more just world recognizes the inequalities that exist in society with regards to reproductive rights. Every person should have the right to dignity, autonomy, and self-determination. Justice in society demands liberation, not oppression or suppression. The typical abortion patient is already a mother, single, and low-income or poor. She may have duties of care to others, such as her existing children, which would be more difficult to fulfill if she has another child. Many women regard bringing a child into the world when they are not able to care for it properly as itself disrespectful of human life. Rape, incest, and life-threatening health emergencies create situations that have a major impact on decisions regarding abortion. As such, they cannot be ignored in any discussion of the subject.
All life is not equal
It could come to some as an alarming claim, but the abortion debate also drifts into the domain of placing different values on human life. A fetus can then be considered to be a human life but without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. The fetus’s right to life does not necessarily give it a right to use the pregnant woman’s body. No one, the argument goes, has the right to use your body unless you give it permission – not even if it needs it for life itself!
When an adult donates a kidney to be transplanted into the body of a child, is there a value judgment involved in the decision (among other considerations) since the child potentially has more years of life ahead of it than the adult? Would the moral relevance of this act be different if the adult lost her life in the process of organ recovery?
While all of society is impacted by it, the abortion issue overwhelmingly centers on women. Women are largely held responsible for pregnancies – even unwanted pregnancies. Women have the responsibility of carrying the fetus. If an abortion is contemplated, the woman is the one who is often required to justify the decision, which implies that abortion is wrong. It is the woman who is denied the autonomy and self-determination about her body. Do not these issues raise concerns about justice, fairness, and equality? How can these be reconciled with the biblical declaration of male-female parity, as in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, make and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NLT). How compatible are these with the freedom and abundant life that Jesus announced? “So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 8:36 NLT). “My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life” (John 10:10 NLT).
All faith traditions hold that life is valuable. They affirm that murder is wrong. Despite the differences in beliefs in faith communities as to when an unborn fetus is a human being, many agree that an early fetus is not a person, but that the late-gestation fetus merits some moral concern because it is virtually identical to a born infant. They think that early abortions are morally better than late ones and that the reasons for not having one should be stronger as the pregnancy progresses.
In addressing the abortion question, should we concede that the best we can do is offer solutions that are circumstantial, subjective, and customized to individual situations since the Bible does not decide the matter for us? If one holds to the view that an unborn life is human and therefore sacred, then putting a mother’s choice above respect for the unborn will seem self-centered, oppressive, violent, and even murderous. If one thinks that an unborn life is not yet a human person, the attempt to protect that life while sacrificing the health, safety, and well-being of its mother could seem disrespectful, oppressive, and sometimes even violent toward the mother.
The questions of individual freedoms and religious liberty loom over any discussion of abortion. The debate over the moral permissibility of abortion may, ultimately, be unsolvable since at its heart is a contested concept regarding personhood. When people of faith seek to enshrine declarations asserting when life begins, they necessarily enshrine their own religious understandings, perspectives, and biases.
Dr. Raj Attiken is an adjunct professor of religion at Kettering College, the Adventist higher education institution in Dayton, Ohio, and former president of the Ohio Conference.