The Religious Consultation
on Population, Reproductive Health  and Ethics

 revisiting the world's sacred traditions

USA Today, August 13, 2006


Where does God stand on abortion?

By Daniel C. Maguire


The major world religions are pluralistic on abortion, with some authorities permitting abortion and some forbidding it. A sampling of views within various faiths:

Roman Catholicism:

The popes have taught that abortion is always forbidden, and the church hierarchy has held to a doctrine that strongly opposes it. Even so, grounds for permitting abortion exist in the Catholic tradition, and many Catholic theological authorities permit abortion in a variety of situations. There is even a pro-choice Catholic saint, the 15th century archbishop of Florence, St. Antoninus. He approved of early abortions when needed to save the life of the mother, a huge category in his day. There is thus no one Catholic view.


Conservative Protestants usually condemn abortion, but Protestants are largely open to a moral choice on abortion. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice reports that some abortion rights are accepted within denominations, including Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Quakers, the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, Methodists, United Church of Christ and Unitarian churches. The United Methodist General Conference was typical of mainline Protestant churches when it rejected "simplistic answers to the problem of abortion which, on the one hand, regard all abortions as murders, or, on the other hand, regard all abortions as procedures without moral significance."


Because of the survival challenges Jews have faced historically, Judaism places great stress on children as a blessing. Nonetheless, as Orthodox theologian Laurie Zoloth says, "Abortion appears as an option for Jewish women from the earliest sources of the Bible and Mishnaic commentary." According to most Jewish authorities, the fetus does not have the status of a nefesh, a person, until the head emerges in the birthing process. This does not mean, however, that late-term abortions would be deemed acceptable in all circumstances. In some cases, performing an abortion is even considered a mitzvah, a sacred duty, not a "lesser evil."


Like all religions, it highly prizes fertility. Even so, Islam believes that we are obligated by God not to overpopulate. As Islamic scholar Azizah al-Hibri says, "The majority of Muslim scholars permit abortion, although they differ on the stage of fetal development beyond which it becomes prohibited." After 120 days, abortion is permissible only to save the mother's life, where the pregnancy is harming an already suckling child, or when it is known that the fetus is malformed. Though the various schools of Islam differ on the time in which an abortion is permitted, al-Hibri says all "permit abortion for exigencies such as saving the mother's life."


This religion teaches "The Middle Way" between too much and too little and applies this to children, too -- thus allowing for family planning. Some Buddhists forbid abortion because it is a precept of Buddhism not "to willingly take the life of a living thing." Others permit abortion when it is not a product of greed, hate, or delusion. Some Buddhists see abortion not as killing but as delaying the arrival of a "being about to be born," a being that may have had many previous lives and is not harmed by this temporary deferral of birth.


The literature of this religion calls abortion one of the mahapatakas (atrocious acts). But Hindu moral law is dynamic and changing, and so abortion is allowed for a variety of reasons. In fact, in India, abortion has been legal since 1971 with almost no objections from Hindu religious authorities.

North American native religions:

Native American cultures commonly believe that one cannot respect Mother Earth without family planning. Because of the strong matriarchal traditions, issues of family planning, such as contraception and abortion, are considered women's business, not men's. As one Lakota woman put it, "Anything that has to do with our bodies ... is really our business as women, and as Lakota women, it is part of our cultures to make our own decisions about abortion."

Taoism and Confucianism:

It is especially noteworthy in the Chinese religions that sex and sexual pleasure are esteemed and celebrated along with the need for moderation. Moderation is also considered a virtue in reproduction. Thus, there is minimal resistance in these religions to contraception, and abortion is allowed as a backup if needed.

Daniel C. Maguire, is professor of Moral Theology at Marquette University and author of Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions.

Where does God stand on abortion?

Each side of this divisiveissue claims the divine knowledge of what is right and wrong in the eyes of the Almighty. As with any hot-button issue, it's not that simple.

By Tom Ehrich

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up one aspect of the abortion issue in its next term — specifically the constitutionality of a rare procedure opponents call "partial-birth" abortion — and as a result will find itself embroiled in a marathon religious duel marked by vitriol, apocalyptic visions and relentless maneuvering. Religious leaders will speak passionately on both sides of the issue, quote Scripture against each other and claim to express God's will.

A third religious constituency, however, has lost interest in the abortion debate — some because homosexuality seems more pertinent; some because other issues such as war, justice, economic distress and terrorism seem more pressing.

In the abortion battle, each religious camp thinks it has gained ground since Roe v. Wade in 1973, in which the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide. One side, calling itself "pro-life," believes that new high court Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts will tilt toward its anti-abortion position. The other side, calling itself "pro-choice," believes that public opinion has moved toward greater acceptance of legal abortion and that the court will follow the trend.

Shades of gray

So where do religions — and for that matter, people of faith — stand when it comes to whether abortion should be legal or not? Much like the secular debate over abortion, the religious debate is one best captured in shades of gray rather than how it's usually depicted by both "pro" sides — in black and white.

In fact, the religious arguments themselves haven't changed much over the past three decades. They've simply grown in volume and intensity.

The basic religious position against abortion is that human life begins at conception, not at birth, and therefore aborting a pregnancy violates the commandment against murder. The Supreme Court said in Roe that "we need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer."

To counteract that argument, those who oppose abortion have devoted much of their recent work to developing a scientific and medical basis for defining life as they see it. Supporters of abortion rights disagree with this definition of life — calling it bad science and a misreading of Scripture — and argue that women, not the state, should make their own reproductive choices.

In the point-counterpoint of the abortion debate, biblical arguments seem to have lost their zing, as partisans talk past each other and dispute the meaning of the few biblical passages that come even close to being relevant. When Psalm 139, for example, says, "You (God) knit me together in my mother's womb," is that biblical proof life begins at conception or simply symbolic language showing God's providence, based perhaps on an ancient Phoenician myth? Depends on whom you ask.

When Jeremiah 1:5 has God saying, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you," is that God's definition of conception or the author's literary description of his call as a prophet? Again, it depends on one's interpretation.

The more active weapons have become labeling and trying to convey the impression of a religious juggernaut, when in fact neither side can make an absolute case for or against abortion.

The decision ultimately comes down to individual religions and, ultimately, individuals.

Each side wants to present itself as the one true religious viewpoint on abortion. In truth, there is no single religious position on abortion. Mainline churches tilt toward allowing legal abortion, conservative churches tilt toward ending legal abortion, but each denomination — even those most publicly aligned with opposition to abortion, such as Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist — has a sizable minority that takes a differing position.

So what lies ahead? The issue of abortion had been in a lull, as gay marriage became this year's political lightning rod. But expect that to change in the fall when the Supreme Court takes it up once again. The protest signs will appear on the steps of the court, the battle lines will again be drawn and the nation will again see religion used as a wedge.

Compromise unlikely

America's religious communities show deep divisions and hardening positions on abortion. As happens when a political or cultural issue becomes a religious cause couched in absolutist language and claims of divine sanction, compromise seems unthinkable.

At the pew level, however, the situation is more fluid. Whether one attends a Southern Baptist service, a Catholic Mass, Jewish synagogue or Muslim mosque, there's a good chance that fellow congregants view the abortion debate as individuals rather than with one religious voice.

You wouldn't know that from the rhetoric — political and religious — on the national stage.

Yes, in this day and age, extreme positions command the microphones and drown out the others. Perhaps it's time for the common-sense middle to assert itself against both extremes — in abortion and in the next hot-button issue.

Tom Ehrich is an Episcopal pastor, author, teacher and writer in Durham, N.C.

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