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Georgette Bennett, Ph.D. Headshot

Abortion: Whose Religious Beliefs Should Prevail?

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The Supreme Court made a monumental decision at the end of its current session. It ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby's bid to limit the types of contraceptives covered by its employee health insurance plans. Founders David and Barbara Green are willing to cover 16 of the 20 kinds of contraceptives approved by the FDA but, for them, the birth control methods that they define as abortifacients are off the table. Asserting a right to run their business on their biblical principles, the Greens aver that covering four types of birth control that work after an egg has been fertilized would make them, and their closely-held family corporation, complicit in abortion. As such, they would be forced to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs. The Supreme Court agreed.

In the U.S., the highly politicized pro-choice/anti-choice dispute is usually fought on the battleground of religion. It involves complex moral and personal questions that are framed by some religions as theological.

  • When does life begin?
  • What constitutes personhood?
  • Whose life takes precedence - the mother's or the child's?
  • What is society's responsibility to a fetus?
  • What role does free will play in reproductive choice?
  • Does abortion constitute murder?
  • Should abortion be punished?

The full list of questions is much longer and each of the great religions answers them differently. Here, I'll look at only five of those religions, starting with the Abrahamic religions, of which the root is Judaism.

One of Judaism's great contributions to civilization is the idea that all people are created in the sacred image of God, giving each life infinite worth. This notion led the ancient Hebrews to eschew human sacrifice and found expression in Moses' exhortation: "I have set before thee life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore, choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live." (Deuteronomy 30:19)

This may sound as if abortion violates Jewish practice and law. In fact, it does not. That's because a fetus is not considered a person until it is born and breathes through its nostrils. Until its head (or other major parts) emerges from the womb, it is viewed as part of the mother's body and not as a separate being. In Judaism, for the first 40 days after fertilization, the fetus is "mere fluid." The "moment of creation" is said to occur either at 40 days or when the bones and arteries begin to form. This is an important distinction because, absent limbs, there is no solid entity to injure. Hence, no violation of the injunction against causing harm. In Judaism, abortion isnotconsidered murder, but that doesn't mean that its casual practice is condoned.

Jewish Halahkic law is highly nuanced and the three main branches of Judaism each have their own interpretations. But, historically, Judaism has allowed for abortion under five circumstances:

  • Peril to the life and health of the mother. This includes both physical and mental well-being.
  • If a birth, or its complications, would result in the mother's death, the mother's life takes precedence.
  • Impregnation as the result of a Biblically forbidden relationship - e.g. rape, incest.
  • Impregnation as the result of adultery - due to the intolerable taint of "bastardy" with which the child would suffer. (No such taint applies to the child of an unmarried woman.)
  • Mental and physical defects in the fetus, or exposure to maternal illness, that are incompatible with life and likely to cause a born child grievous suffering and/or certain early death.
  • In Israel, age is also a factor: if a woman is under legally marriageable age (17) or over the age of 40.

Even within Christianity, which has tended to dominate the debate on abortion, there are a diversity of views. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament are silent on the matter of abortion, although there are a number of texts that could be interpreted to imply pre-natal personhood. But, doctrine has emerged from inference rather than clear direction.

The Roman Catholic view is the one that has been most visible in the Right to Life Movement, which was founded by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1968. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches agree that life begins at conception and that abortion constitutes the taking of a human life. As such, it is considered a grievous sin, subject to excommunication. But historically, exception to automatic excommunication has been made when there were extenuating circumstances. For example, the early Christian church did not view abortion as murder because the soul was thought not to be present in the early stages of the fetus.

Protestant denominations fall into two camps: the mainline churches (including Episcopalian, Lutheran, Quakers, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church) tend to be more liberal in their views. Some go so far as supporting abortion rights. While all agree that abortion for convenience is morally wrong, they support the right of a woman to make this choice as a matter of conscience.

The fundamentalist and evangelical churches (such as Southern Baptist, Pentecostal, Non-Denominational) agree that abortion is a form of infanticide. There is no consensus on whether exceptions should be made to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape and incest.

Islam's views on abortion are similar to those of Judaism. As in Judaism and Christianity, the Qu'ran is silent on the issue of willfully terminating pregnancy. Also like those religions, there are many schools of thought. But, they seem to agree on several basic principles:

  • Life is made sacred by Allah and taking a life is haram. But this refers to a fully formed human being, not a fetus.
  • Abortion is legal, when done for valid reasons, and if completed before the soul enters the fetus. There are diverse opinions as to when a fetus becomes a living soul: at 40 days, at four months or when the fetus starts to move voluntarily.
  • After ensoulment, abortion is prohibited and considered an act of murder. But, if the life of the mother is at risk, abortion may be performed beyond that time. If a choice must be made between the life of the mother and the fetus, the lesser of two evils is to sacrifice the fetus. This is because the mother is the original source of life, while the fetus is a potential life. Also, in many Islamic cultures, the mother is considered the pillar of the family, with duties and responsibilities, and has the capacity to give life again.
  • Abortion as an act of compassion, is occasionally permitted for other reasons: when a fetus is severely deformed and will have a terrible quality of life or when the family is in such dire straits that the lives of the family are at risk.
  • Although there is no outright approval of abortion, neither is there a universal ban on it.

In Buddhism, though the first precept is not to destroy any form of life but there is no single answer to the abortion question because of the belief in rebirth through the transfer of karma, a fetus is believed to carry the karmic identity of a previous life. As such, Buddhists view life as starting at conception. To destroy a fetus is to destroy a life and that can be tantamount to murder. At the same time, Buddhists are expected to take full responsibility for their choices, including the choice to terminate a pregnancy. Whether such a choice generates bad karma depends on the intention, mindfulness and motivation behind the decision. Certainly, in the case where pregnancy threatens a woman's life, a complex balancing of values goes into the decision of whether to harm the fetus or harm the mother. In the case of a fetus with congenital conditions that would cause it to suffer greatly in life, abortion may be chosen. The moral status of abortion is contingent on the circumstances and involves a weighing of benefit and harm, within a framework of compassion for all living beings.

Hinduism houses many schools of thought, which differ on the matter of abortion. The sacred texts of Hinduism define abortion as violating the central precept of non-violence. Like Buddhists, Hindus generally agree that the soul (atman) enters the fetus at conception, marking the sacred moment in which the spirit bonds with matter, continuing the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. To deprive that soul of its karmic role in the world is a serious, but not unforgivable sin. The aborted fetus will eventually find another embodiment and the mother and father will deal with the karmic consequences. In the case of danger to a mother's life, abortion is thought to be wrong, but it is a greater wrong for a fetus to be the cause of a mother's death. As such the determination of harm involves a calculus that takes into account the mother, the family, society and the fetus.

The decision to abort is not an easy one. It raises complex moral questions, which often involve painful choices. Each religion offers its own guidelines for making those choices. But, that is not the sole determinant for many people. The question of abortion is further complicated by clashing interpretations within religions and across the individual nations and cultures within which each religion is practiced. As if that weren't baffling enough, there is often a disconnect between religious doctrine and actual practice. Ironically, some of the countries in which the dominant religion has the severest strictures against abortion are the ones that have the highest rates of abortion.

The great underlying question is this: Should the beliefs of one religion be imposed on those who may hold other sincerely held beliefs? Or, on the growing number of people who hold no specific religious beliefs, at all?