on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics

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Summary of Sacred Choices

Roman Catholicism

When the pope says that no Catholic woman may choose contraception or an abortion in any circumstance however serious, how can a Catholic woman feel morally free to make that choice? The reason is that the pope's opinion is only one of the perfectly legitimate and orthodox Catholic opinions. According to traditional Catholic theology--unknown even to many Catholics-- a Catholic is free to choose contraception and abortion when necessary. As has happened before in Church history, papal teaching on this issue of morality will probably also follow the lead of the theologians and many Catholics, according to Catholic theologian Christine Gudorf. As she says, "the foundations of the old bans have been razed."


Judaism, like most religions, begins with the mandate to "choose life." It recognizes however, that choosing life can at times mean choosing death, as in cases of killing in self defense. There can, according to Judaism, also be occasions to defend values essential to life by choosing an abortion. This is facilitated in Judaism, as theologian Laurie Zoloth says, because the "fetus is not seen as being an ensouled person." Even in the last trimester, she says, "the fetus has a lesser moral status." As an ancient Jewish text puts it, abortion "is not forbidden when it is done because of a great need."


In Islam, as in all religions, there is always a diversity of opinions, and there are those in Islam who oppose all abortions. However, there is broad acceptance in the major Islamic teachings of abortion in the first four months of pregnancy. Most of the revered teachers in Islam hold that abortion is permissible for serious reasons. Even late-term abortions are permitted when there is danger to the mother's life. Family planning is accepted as a moral need by most Muslims.

Protestant Christianity

Protestantism, the dominant religious affiliation in the United States and in many countries, is firmly in favor of family planning. However noisy the anti-choice conservatives in Protestantism are, they do not represent mainstream Protestantism. More typical of Protestantism is the statement of the General Board of the American Baptist Churches in 1988. Conceding that some oppose all abortions, they say "May others advocate for and support family planning legislation, including legalized abortion as being in the best interest of women in particular and society in general." Civil law should not take sides in this debate. To do so is to violate the human right to religious freedom.


The principle of AHIMSA, doing no harm is central to Jainism. On the basis of this some Jains conclude that all abortion is wrong. However,on the basis of the very same principle some Jains conclude that there are situations when abortion is the least harmful choice because of medical or other reasons. On that basis, then, they would justify abortion when necessary to prevent greater harm. Abortion can be the least harmful option in some cases and a person of the Jain faith can choose abortion for serious reasons without betraying their faith.


A Buddhist woman can have an abortion and still be a good Buddhist. This does not mean that there is nothing negative about abortion. All could agree that it would be better if no abortions were needed, and in a perfect world that might be possible. This world is not perfect. Buddhism, like the other religions of the world, faces the fact that abortion may sometimes be the best decision and a truly moral choice. Buddhists have a long experience with family planning, including abortion.


Arguments for family planning can be drawn from the main moral teachings of Hinduism and Jainism. DHARMA emphasizes the need to act "for the sake of the good of the world." Producing more children than you or the environment can support is not "for the sake of the good of the world." Overpopulating beyond your means or society's capacity is claiming more than you have a right to. It violates AHIMSA and all the other fundamental moral commitments of Hinduism. Not surprisingly, therefore, abortion has been legal in India since 1971 with the passing of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act and religious objections to it are very rare.

Native American Religions

Native religions discouraged overburdening the land with over-population and women usually set the tone regarding this, and also regarding family planning, including abortion. Speaking for her tradition a woman of the Ojibwe people said: "It is a disgrace to have children like steps and stairs. If a man had sense, he didn't bother his wife while a child was young." A Lakota woman put it this way: "Anything that has to do with our bodies is really our business as women, and as Lakota women, it is part of our culture to make our own decision about abortion." A 1991 Women of Color Reproductive Health Poll showed that 80 percent of native women hold this view.

The Chinese Religions, Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism

Abortion is always a thorny issue, an unfortunate necessity at best. The Chinese religions with their stress on harmony and compassion addressed abortion and saw it as justifiable in certain circumstances. Chinese scholar Geling Shang says: "The Chinese have employed abortion for various reasons since ancient times." He says there was "no explicit code" to prohibit it. "Chinese attitudes toward abortion were mostly tolerant and compassionate. People did not think it was wrong unless it was done unnecessarily."


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