TRC Logo, October, 2007

Garry Wills on the Abortion Question

By Martin E. Marty

"But is abortion murder?" Garry Wills asks the question in his new book, Head and Heart: American Christianities. In this enlightening book—you will hear much about it—Wills explores how the Enlightenment heritage interacts with the Evangelical heritage, which Wills treats evangelically at least until the last chapter, "The Karl Rove Era." This Wills sees as a corruption of both traditions. I had read Wills's manuscript, and couldn't wait to see it in print. I'd say more about its qualities, but must hurry on to how he answers the question posed above. He finds the abortion question important because it is the "wedge issue," the one that evokes absolutist claims that have political effects.

Wills contends, "It is not demonstrable that killing fetuses is killing persons. Not even the Evangelicals act as if it were. In that case, the woman seeking the abortion…is killing her own child." If the fetus is regarded as a person, why would the murderous mother be exempt from the death penalty, in which most Evangelicals believe? And many Evangelicals allow abortion in the case of rape or incest. That won't work: "We do not kill people because they had a criminal parent." Some allow for abortion to save a life. Wills asks, "Why should the mother be preferred over the 'child' if both are, equally, persons?" Why opt for the "certitude" of murder over only the "danger of death?"

Wills, himself a Catholic, raises the temperature even higher: "Nor did the Catholic Church treat abortion as murder in the past. If it had, late-term abortions and miscarriages would have called for treatment of the well-formed fetus as a person—calling for baptism and Christian burial." But this was never the case. "And no wonder," says Wills. The subject of abortion is not scriptural, "it is not treated in the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or anywhere in the Jewish Scripture, the New Testament or the creeds and the early ecumenical councils." Augustine? He could never find in Scripture "anything at all certain about the origins of the soul." And the most notable Thomas Aquinas, "lacking scriptural guidance" and using Aristotelian distinctions, "denied that personhood arose at fertilization by the semen. God directly infuses the soul at the completion of human formation."

Wills refutes arguments that abortion is a religious issue, and that anti-abortionists are acting out of religious conviction. No, it is not a theological matter at all: "There is no theological basis for either defending or condemning abortion." Even the popes say it is a "matter of natural law, to be decided by natural reason," and the pope is not an arbiter of natural law. Informed conscience, said super-convert John Henry Newman, has to come first in matters of this sort.

Wills concludes: When anti-abortionists claim to be "pro-life," they are inconsistent. Only people like Albert Schweitzer can be called consistently pro-life. "My hair is human life," yet the barber does not preserve it. What matters is not "human life" but "the human person." Sonograms of the fetus reacting do not show a human person: "All living cells have electric and automatic reactions." Don't get Wills wrong: "It is not enough to say that whatever the woman wants should go. She has a responsibility to consider..." But, he asks, do religious or political authorities have the right to take over that responsibility? Take it from there.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at


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