I would like to have an intelligent, dispassionate conversation on religion and abortion. Yeah, I know I’m asking a lot.
When faced with an emotional issue, or one in which most people’s reactions-my own included-are very emotional, I try to separate the
emotional content and look at the situation from an intellectual, analytical standpoint. This is simply how my mind works.
On this issue, I already knew a large part of the non-religious argument, the scientific side, and I was certainly aware of at least one religion’s take on the matter. But, we live in a pluralistic society and world, and it has taken some research to understand the other main world
religion's stances on this issue.
I started with the assumption, borne out by fact as I’ve discovered that abortion is nothing new. The ancients practiced abortion, including the early Christians, particularly while the nascent religion was considered little more than a sect of Judaism.
Actually, all the major world religions have discussed abortion in ancient times as well as in this day and age. What may be surprising is that Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism all allowed abortion under certain circumstances.
According to Islam, a religion most Americans don’t equate with protecting the rights of women and children, abortion is permissible. I
was shocked to learn that not only is it allowed when the mother’s life is in danger; her ability to care for or nurse her other children is also taken into consideration. Further, a woman may end a pregnancy without the consent or even the knowledge of her husband, if she has good reason. The early writers of Islam assumed that a woman who was to be or already was a mother would do what is in the best interests of all her children, those she had already given birth to as well as those as yet unborn.
In both Hinduism and Buddhism, abortion is discussed as a lesser of two evils. Both of these faiths hold all life sacred, and believe in
balance and karma. When a woman’s life is at risk, taking the life of her unborn child to save her own is understood as bad, but the quote used is “When faced with two bad things, choose the lesser of the two evils”.
Now let’s look at Judaism. According to the Talmud, abortion is not only allowable, but in some circumstances required, if the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. Jewish scholars have gone so far as to describe exactly under what circumstances, and how an abortion may be accomplished, as well as when. The one, absolute prohibition is that an abortion may not be performed once the fetus’ forehead is delivered, or in the case of a breech birth, when half the body is outside the womb.
The Talmud states that life does indeed begin at conception, however, ensoulment, the moment when a fetus becomes a person does not happen until birth. Until then, it is a potential human life, not a human life in its own right. Therefore, the prohibitions against abortion as being an act of murder, the taking of another human life, do not apply. Until the moment of ensoulment, the life of the potential person is lesser than the lives of those already here, such as the mother and any already born children.
It must be noted that in all the religions discussed above, abortion is never to be used as merely another form of birth control, nor is it
allowed to be used as a way for a woman to hide infidelity. What I find even more fascinating is the various religions use of thirty to ninety days in their discussions as an acceptable time frame of if abortion is to be allowed, when it is most permissibe. Actually, in many earlier societies, a woman would bare the child, who then often as not would be killed by her husband, the elders or even the religious leaders themselves, if the woman herself was allowed to live once proof of her infidelity was known, evidenced by her growing belly.
What I find most interesting about the Christian and Catholic prohibitions against all abortion is these attitudes and understandings
Jesus as a Jewish Rabbi would have held; a fact I’m sure most who claim Jesus is against abortion are unaware.
The question I then had was when abortion became anathema in the Catholic and Christian churches. I’ve studied a lot of early Church
history, yet I’m unable to pinpoint exactly when this prohibition came about.
Most of what I’ve been able to find so far has dealt with women who were either harlots or unfaithful to their husbands who then aborted
the fetus as being doubly damned, as having committed two sins according to the Council of Elvira in approximately 306CE. At the council of Ancrya in 314CE, the punishment for a woman who commits abortion is actually lessened, from excommunication until the point of death to a mere ten year penalty.
The fact that early church elders were well aware of Talmudic and other religions views on abortion and ensoulment is evidenced by
the writings of Ancient Epitome at the Council in Trullo in 692CE in Constantinople, who states that “we pay no attention to the subtle
distinction as to whether the foetus was formed or unformed”. It is interesting to note that the Western or Catholic Church has never recognized this particular council.
All my reading and research have proven that abortion has always been primarily a matter of faith, though the politics of the time did play an important role. It is also clear that murder and suicide were very intertwined in the issue because the act was often fatal to the mother as well. If it was done with her consent, it was tantamount to suicide; if it was done against her will, her death was often a byproduct of the method of abortion. For this reason alone, I would think the modern Church would allow abortion at least in some cases as a way to preserve the life of a woman.
All my reading and research have not changed my opinion on whether abortion is right or wrong. In fact, it has solidified my understanding
that this is an issue that is between a woman and her God. As such, the government has no right, under that separation of church and state we hold so dear, to criminalize an act of faith. I would think that in these enlightened times, in a country where we hold the separation of church and state as one of our most basic rights, understanding this issue as one driven by faith is of paramount importance.
I’ve said it before, and for clarification I’ll say it here again: I do not support abortion as just another birth control measure. However, I will not support any law based on faith that prohibits abortion. I may be damned for my opinion, but that is between me and my God.