March 9, 1992 issue of

The theology of abortion

By Jeffrey L. Sheler

Both sides in the debate cite scripture to support their beliefs.

Not since slavery has an issue so polarized American society -- and perhaps never has an issue posed a greater moral dilemma. The modern debate over abortion, as it is played out in the nation's courts and legislative halls, is a conflict of competing moral visions and of fundamental human rights: to life, to privacy, to control over one's own body. Yet when stripped of the political rhetoric and the entangling legal arguments, it is an issue that rests on basic theological questions.

What is human life? When does it begin? What is its value and source?

With such strong religious overtones, it is little wonder that church and religious groups have been on the front lines of the abortion battle -- and will likely remain so if the Supreme Court throws the issue back to the states by overturning Roe v. Wade.

But the churches are far from united on the subject.

While the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Protestants have been highly visible in opposing abortion, scores of religious groups are fervent defenders of abortion rights.

Some 35 Christian and Jewish organizations, for example, are members of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, a grass-roots lobbying group formed two decades ago to counter Catholic and evangelical antiabortion efforts.

Dissension within.

More and more, churches are finding their flocks divided over the issue. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations that stand officially in favor of abortion rights face a growing tide of dissent within their ranks.

And among those officially opposed to abortion, such as Catholic, Southern Baptist and Mormon churches, leaders are hearing more internal arguments these days from members who are uncomfortable with rigid antiabortionism.

On both sides of the debate, church leaders are feeling pressure to explain and justify their positions.

Yet in making their cases, both sides appeal to the same Judeo-Christian ideals.

Ultimately, both base their stands on biblical tenets and religious tradition. Their polarization underscores the complexity and the historical ambiguities of religious teaching on abortion.

The issue has plagued the church almost from the beginning. The Bible itself is virtually silent on abortion. The Ten Commandments state "Thou shalt not kill," but neither the Old nor the New Testament contains explicit sanctions against intentionally destroying a fetus.

Some modern theologians find that remarkable, given the harsh penalties for abortion evident among other Middle Eastern cultures in biblical times. The fact that the Apostle Paul failed to mention abortion, though he wrote plenty on sexual morality, says Paul D. Simmons, professor of Christian ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, suggests that "he regarded abortion as a matter to be dealt with on the basis of faith, grace and Christian freedom."

Others interpret the silence as suggesting that abortion was not a problem among early Christians.

"Abortion was a dangerous option for women," says James L. Nash, assistant professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. "Among Christians, it simply wasn't practiced."

First prohibition.

By the early second century, however, the church broke its silence.

The Didache, a book of rules considered by some to be teachings of the Apostles, proclaimed:

What seemed to concern early church leaders most was whether abortion was done to conceal sexual sins and whether it amounted to murder.

St. Augustine wrote in the fourth century that abortion could be viewed as murder only if the fetus was judged a "fully formed" human. That stage of development, "hominization," occurred for Augustine some time after conception -- 40 days for males and 80 days for females. Nonetheless, an early abortion was sinful, Augustine wrote, because it disrupted procreation.

The Catholic Church's early reversals on abortion suggest the difficulty it had coming to a firm position. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V declared that abortion at any stage was murder. Three years later, Pope Gregory XIV reversed that opinion but said abortion could not be used as birth control and was wrong if used to cover up a sexual sin. Finally, in 1869, Pope Pius IX sidestepped hominization and declared that the fetus, "although not ensouled, is directed to the forming of man. Therefore, its ejection is anticipated homicide." He prohibited abortion under all circumstances.

That remains the official position of the Roman Catholic Church.

Jews have arrived at a much more tolerant position. The Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements generally consider abortion a matter of individual conscience and oppose most government restrictions on abortion -- a position with roots in ancient Jewish writings. The Talmud suggests that the fetus is not fully a person but, rather, is "as the thigh of its mother." Nonetheless, it is worthy of protection as a potential human being.

The Mishna, a compilation of Jewish law from the third century A.D., explicitly approves of therapeutic abortions if the mother's life is endangered. And the Responsa, later commentaries on Talmudic law, contain varying opinions as to when a nontherapeutic abortion may be justified. Orthodox Jews today allow abortion only in strictly defined cases involving the health and survival of the mother. "It's nonsense to say a woman has the right to her body," says Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. "No one in this country has that right."

Individual duty.

In Protestantism, positions on abortion have tended to follow each denomination's liberal or conservative outlook on other issues.

Most churches place biblical authority above church tradition and emphasize the duty of individuals to interpret scripture for themselves. For some, the abortion issue boils down to a deceptively simple proposition. Even though the Bible does not specifically ban abortion, says theologian Harold O.J. Brown, of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, it "prohibits the taking of innocent human life.

If the developing fetus is shown to be a human being ... then abortion is homicide." Yet as with abortion itself, the Bible is not explicit on when a fetus becomes fully human or whether it is so from conception.

Even so, both sides cite biblical texts to support their arguments. Abortion opponents note such passages as Isaiah 49:1 ("The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name") and Jeremiah 1:5 ("Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee: and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations") as showing the fetus as esteemed and ordained by God.

Perhaps the most powerful of such passages is in Psalm 139:

That passage, argues Brown in his book "Death Before Birth," makes it "abundantly clear that God ... is personally concerned for us before</i> birth."

Meanwhile, some abortion-rights supporters find evidence in the book of Exodus that the fetus is something less than fully human.

Chapter 21 depicts a fight between two men that results in a pregnant woman's suffering "a miscarriage, but no further injury."

If the miscarriage is the only damage, it says, the offender must pay a fine. "But if injury ensues, you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth ... ."

Although Exodus clearly depicts an accidental rather than a willful termination of pregnancy, says Paul Simmons of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, "it gives no support to the parity argument that gives equal religious and moral worth to woman and fetus."

Deference should be given to the rights and well-being of the woman, Simmons argues, when it comes to abortion. Some Christian theologians contend that, given the Bible's silence on abortion and its ambiguity concerning the fetus, the biblical principle of human free will should be emphasized.

Prof. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott of William Paterson College in New Jersey, writing for the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, argues that in scripture, "God foreknew that Adam and Eve would misuse their power to choose, yet God chose to give them that power. ...

We should follow our Creator's example by giving each other more moral elbow room."

With theologians as divided as the rest of society over abortion, some commentators, like Anglican clergyman John R.W. Stott, are calling for new dialogue among theologians from various traditions as a step toward common ground and, perhaps, toward a healing of the cultural rift. Others doubt such deliberations would be productive given how deeply entrenched many churches are in their own dogma. "Inevitably," says conservative theologian Carl F.H. Henry, "the theological issue is going to prove central, either by way of a recognition of the moral authority of the Judeo-Christian heritage or by a deliberate rejection of it."

If the heritage is rejected, Henry warns, "it is a capitulation to the barbarians." Such dialogue clearly would not be without risk.

But it is a risk many are ready to take.