_Free Inquiry_, ''Perspective: Anti-abortion and Religion''
"Perspective: Anti-abortion and Religion", Betty McCollister,
_Free Inquiry_, Winter '86
+Begin Quoted Article+
As the abortion battle waxes more glandular and violent, it is easy to
forget what a new battle it is, especially in its religious aspects.
Although conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants now claim
to speak for God on the matter -- while Jews and mainstream Christians
tend to support pro-choice -- America's abortion laws were put on the books
by doctors, not clergy. And, although the church did condemn abortion
from time to time, it usually recognized the "quickening" doctrine, proposed
by Aristotle and accepted by Augustine and Thoman Aquinas, which stated that
ensoulment took place at forty days if the fetus was male, at eighty days if
female. Dispatch before ensoulment was not considered a crime until the
Vatican Council promulgated the idea that the fetus is human at
conception. The same council defined papal infallibility and the
primacy of Rome. It was led by Pope Pius IX, who had earlier proclaimed
as dogma the Immaculate Conception of the Bessed Virgin (not to be
confused with the Virgin Birth).
Anti-abortionists argue that modern science has confirmed the full
humanity of the zygote, or fertilized egg. They conveniently overlook
other discoveries of modern science, e.g. that about a third of all
conceptions are spontaneously aborted, usually without the pregnant
woman's awareness; that the fetus is wholly dependent on the mother _in
utero_ and very much so after birth; and that babies deprived of good
care, either pre- or post-natally, are seriously at risk physically and
Combatants on both sides believe in the sanctity of human life. The
standoff is over what constitutes it. Pro-choice advocates emphasize
quality over quantity. They understand that the zygote is genetically
coded but view as "potential" that which must be nurtured by parents and
communitiy for fifteen to twenty years if it is to flower. They don't
overlook the father's part in conception or his responsibility to his
child, which anti-abortionists often do, especially those who combine
their crusade with the misogynist, anti-sexual bias that has
characterized much of Xianity since St. Paul so powerfully shaped the
new faith. Typically, the fanatically religious anti-abortionists
display the same intolerance and callous indifference to human suffering
that God's bullies always have. The insist on the right of the fetus to
be born but are indifferent to its fate after birth.
And yet medical men got the laws passed with no help from the churches.
The best account of abortion history in this country is in James Mohr's
_Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy_. It
is short, clear, lively, fascinating and well illustrated, as well as
being scholarly. Mohr writes that abortion was taken fro granted in
America, as it had been or millenia everywhere (especially when it was
between a woman and her midwife) until about 1850, when members of the
newly organized American Medical Association became concerned over the
number being performed dangerously by medical quacks. Motivated at
first by a laudable desire to protect women's healthe, they later
included in their propaganda arsenal the anti-feminist argument that God
cretaed woment to bear children adn the racist argument that racially
inferior and undesirable Catholic women -- "the ignorant, the low-lived,
and the alien" -- were outbreeding "our own population as WASP women
aborted, and that "America is fast losing her national characteristics."
As an example of how things change, this argument, which is not used at
all nowadays, was very effective with state legislatures when there
lobbied by doctors fighting against abortion.
The doctors leveled more than one broadside at churches and clergy.
Medical journals acidly suggested that the churches placed revenue for
abortifacient ads above righteousness and called the clerics of the time
cowards and hypocrites, as in this blast from the Missouri State Medical
Association in 1863:
Fearful as are the numbers of criminal abortions...we have yet
to find the subject entertained by any one of the numberous conclaves
of the religious men of our country who sit in high authority all over
the land, and who pronounce upon topics political, religious, and
A short excursion into American history won;t end the war, but it should
defuse the religious argument to an extent. Whether or not abortion is
permissible, it has rarely been a religious issue until the past decade.
As a reviewer in the _Christian Century_ wrpte: "Mohr makes it
abundantly clear that the Supreme Court decisions of the 1970s were not
a modern meakening of moral statndards but a return to what Americans
believed and practiced a hundred years ago."
Nor does Scripture give authority to the anti-abortionists. The word
_abortion_ itself is not to be found in any of the Bible's 1200 pages.
There are only two references to the matter, neither suggesting that the
conceptus in fully human. In Exodus 21, a person who causes a woman to
lose her fetus against her will must pay a fine; if she dies as well, he
must pay with his life. The woman is fully human; the fetus is not. In
Numbers 5, a woman accused of adultery is required to drink a potion; if
she aborts, she is found guilty. This hardly implies a fully human
fetus. Religious citizens have every right, it should go without
saying, to believe for sectarian reasons that abortion is murder. But
religious history isn't behind them on this one. Nither is the First
Amendment which requires us to respect the religoius beliefs of others.
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