Despite the claim by many Christian leaders that the pro-life/antiabortion position is the only faithful response to the debate about reproductive rights, many people of faith find themselves in a murky middle of this supposedly black-and-white issue. Christians who are pro-abortion rights are rarely pro-abortion. However, they view the decision to carry a pregnancy to term as one to be made by the woman, her medical team, her family, or personal counsel rather than by politicians.
Pro-Choice and Christian explores the biblical, theological, political, and medical aspects of the debate in order to provide a thoughtful Christian argument for a pro-choice position with regard to abortion issues. Kira Schlesinger considers relevant Scriptures, the politics of abortion in the United States, and the human realities making abortion a vital issue of justice and compassion. By examining choice from a Christian perspective, Schlesinger provides a common vocabulary for discussing faith and reproductive rights.
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About the Author
Kira Schlesinger is an Episcopal priest at Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Lebanon, Tennessee.
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A BRIEF HISTORY OF ABORTION FROM PREHISTORY TO ILLEGALITY
Since people have been having sex, men and women have invented ways to try to avoid the repercussions of sex, namely, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections and diseases. Condoms, birth control, and induced abortions were not invented in the twentieth century, nor did people suddenly start having sex outside of marriage around the time of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. Overall, Christians and our institutional churches are not very good at talking about sex from a faith-perspective, except to say, "Don't" or "Sex is for procreation, and that's it." Even if we agree that intimate physical relations find their deepest meaning within the commitment made in marriage, sex still serves purposes beyond and beside procreation, such as mutual pleasure, bonding, and expressing love and desire.
It is not clear how much ancient people understood about reproduction or the efficacy of their contraceptive methods. Prolonged breast-feeding was one means of delaying pregnancy, and ancient women undertook rituals and ingested herbs or simply avoided sexual intercourse at certain times during their menstrual cycles — what some today call the rhythm method. The ancient Egyptians and Chinese recorded contraception and abortion recipes that date back to 1300 BCE. Many of these recipes for contraception involved inserting something into the vagina that successfully killed and repelled sperm. Men used primitive condoms made of linen or animal intestine or would coat the penis with substances like tar to function as a barrier. Similar contraceptive methods are documented in the late ninth and early tenth centuries in Persia, where Islamic physicians considered contraception to be part of good medical care.
As shocking as it is to our modern sensibilities, one of the primary methods for limiting fertility and population growth in the ancient world was infanticide, or killing children after they were born. Abortion methods were primarily nonsurgical and often ineffective or dangerous. Women engaged in strenuous activity, fasting, bloodletting, and massage to eliminate an unwanted pregnancy. By the Roman era, certain herbs were used as abortifacients, though this was not without risk to the woman, as many of those herbs were poisonous.
ABORTION AND THE EARLY CHURCH
Aristotle's teaching on "delayed ensoulment" was prominent in the world into which Christianity was born. The Greek philosopher held that the fetus first had a vegetable soul, which evolved later in pregnancy into an animal soul, and finally into a human soul. This "ensoulment" happened around forty days after conception for male fetuses and ninety days after conception for female fetuses. Without a means of determining the date of conception, or of knowing gender prior to birth, these numbers were mostly symbolic. Nonetheless, the concept of delayed ensoulment, which influenced Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, suggests that, as the fetus develops, its moral standing as a person increases.
The Christian church began in a world in which widespread contraception, abortion, and infanticide were practiced by Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, and Romans; not surprisingly, the early thinkers in the church felt compelled to address these issues. When the early church fathers wrote about abortion, it was not ambiguous: abortion was considered murder. Both the second-century Epistle of Barnabas and the Didache contain commands not to murder a child by abortion or to commit infanticide. Tertullian, writing from North Africa in the third century says,
The embryo therefore becomes a human being in the womb from the moment that its form is completed. The law of Moses, indeed, punishes with due penalties the man who shall cause abortion, inasmuch as there exists already the rudiment of a human being, which has imputed to it even now the condition of life and death, since it is already liable to the issues of both, although, by living still in the mother, it for the most part shares its own state with the mother.
In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa argues in a polemic against Christians who do not believe in the divinity of the Holy Spirit that an unborn child possesses a soul as far as it exhibits movement and growth, the soul being present in the unformed embryo and later made manifest, essentially arguing for ensoulment at conception.
We reach the heart of the issue in Clement of Alexandria's The Tutor, wherein he writes,
But men are not always willing to let marriage serve its purpose. For marriage is the desire for the procreation of children, and not disorderly sexual conduct, which is as much outside the laws as it is foreign to reason. Universal life would proceed according to nature if we would practice continence from the beginning instead of destroying, through immoral and pernicious acts, human beings who are given birth by Divine Providence. Those who use abortifacient medicines to hide their fornication are causing the outright destruction, together with the fetus, of the whole human race.
Put simply, sex is only acceptable within marriage, and marriage is for the procreation of children.
A closer look at the beliefs of the early church fathers about the status of the fetus and abortion complicates matters. Considering the resurrection of the dead at the end of the world, Augustine concludes that early miscarried fetuses would not be included. Thus, for Augustine, it follows that at least the early fetus does not have the same status of person. Recently, Latin American theologians reached the conclusion that the texts condemning abortion in the early church refer to the abortion of a fully formed fetus, so the abortion of the early fetus would not rise to the level of murder.
The condemnations of abortion and contraception in the early church can be read as a pro-life statement about the moral status of the fetus and also with a general bias against sex, sexuality, and women. Until the role of the ovum was discovered in the nineteenth century, sperm were thought to contain miniature people, or homunculi, which is why male masturbation was sometimes called homicide. In addition to the fact that early Christians were ignorant of women's full role in reproduction, the history of Christianity is oftentimes virulently antiwomen, and these debates about sexuality and reproduction frequently reflect that. From blaming Eve for the fall of humanity to the Mosaic law assuming male ownership of women, women were sources of evil at worst and pieces of property at best.
Despite women being the last remaining disciples of Jesus at the foot of the cross and the first to witness and preach the resurrection, the legacy of women in the growing Christian movement was mostly erased. First-century Judaism was heavily patriarchal, and out of this milieu came the church. For a little while, it seemed that the church might buck the trends of the culture, as women led house churches and served as deaconesses. Many of the early church martyrs were women, and the church created a place for widows and others who might not have had a male family member to support and care for them. Even still, women were primarily viewed as property — to be transferred from father to husband when the time was right.
As many of us know well, Paul's letters have frequently been quoted in defense of complementarianism, the idea that men and women have "separate but equal" gifts. Women should not teach men and should be submissive to their husbands. However, Paul's letters also name the many women who were active leaders in these Christian communities, women like Lydia and Dorcas. And, of course, Paul boldly claims in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free.
In the earliest days of the church, Christians saw one another as family, as brothers and sisters in Christ, a bond that trumped blood relations. They were encouraged to grow the church through evangelism and baptism, rather than through giving birth. After all, the kingdom was nigh, and Jesus would be returning soon, within a generation. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes that it is better for the unmarried and the widows to stay that way, unless they are unable to control themselves sexually (1 Cor. 7:9). He also recommends that those who are married remain so, but that "the time has been shortened" and "the form of this world is passing away" (1 Cor. 7:31). Two thousand years later, we're all still waiting for the second coming, and the Christian view of family has changed quite a bit.
The legacy of the early church fathers on the status and place of women is not a great one. Augustine wrote about women and reproduction, "I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children." Augustine also wrote that a woman alone does not possess the image of God, but does so only when taken together with a man. Tertullian writes, "Woman is a temple built over a sewer," and, referencing Eve, declares that women are the gate to hell. Another prevalent idea was that women are simply defective or misbegotten men. Thomas Aquinas thought that females are produced from male embryos that were damaged in the womb.
Both inside and outside Christianity, women were frequently reduced to their ability to bear children, with language that still echoes in today's debates. From ancient Greece to Egyptian writings to the Qur'an, women are talked about as passive, as mere hosts for a prospective child. The man plants the seed in the soil, where it then grows. Despite the dangers of childbirth, "her effort, her needs, the dangers and pains and injuries of pregnancy and childbirth are all erased," says feminist writer Katha Pollitt.
Until 1869, there was no official position within the Catholic Church about the status of the embryo and fetus. According to theologian Christine Gudorf,
The dominant, but not the only theological position was adopted from Aristotle and championed by Thomas Aquinas, who counted ensoulment of the fetus as occurring 40-80 days after conception, depending on the sex of the fetus. The dominant pastoral position — obviously because it was more practical and obvious — was that ensoulment occurred at quickening, when the fetus could first be felt moving in the mother's womb, usually early the fifth month. Before ensoulment the fetus was not understood as a person.
Even in the early church, most Catholic thinkers denied the idea of "spontaneous animation," that life begins at conception. While abortion, along with sterilization, contraception, and masturbation, was considered a sin, it did not rise to the level of murder.
Despite the church's position on abortion and church canons that decreed punishments for women guilty of abortion, it appears that women still sought out abortions. Initially, as a penance for her abortion, a woman was excluded from communion for the rest of her life. Later, in the fourth century, this lifetime ban was shortened to a period of ten years, when she could be readmitted to communion if she was found to show sufficient repentance. While these penalties seem harsh, the church saw itself as trying to protect women, who frequently died from ingesting poison designed for abortion.
As the Roman Catholic Church came to dominate much of Europe through the Middle Ages, it limited reproductive practices and counseled celibacy for unmarried laypeople and sexual restraint within marriage; so contraceptive and abortive treatments went underground. Though knowledge about the body and medical expertise increased during the Renaissance, women's health needs were met primarily by midwives rather than physicians. Unlike physicians, who trained at universities, midwives were typically older women who learned through apprenticing experience how to deliver babies and attend to women's reproductive health, including recipes for contraception and abortion. Later, women with this kind of knowledge were often accused of sorcery and witchcraft.
It is hard to imagine the plight and status of these premodern women, particularly since their voices and struggles were not preserved by history. With regard to sex, they were at the mercy of their husbands and without easy access to contraception. Premodern times saw frequent pregnancies, the very real possibility of dying in childbirth, and a high child mortality rate. Though the church fathers name only adultery and drunkenness as a reason for a woman to seek out an abortionist, we can imagine multiple reasons why a woman might feel the need to eliminate an unwanted pregnancy.
With the Protestant Reformation and the end of clerical celibacy, clergy began to have firsthand experience of the dilemmas of reproduction in the context of family life. Unsurprisingly, at the start, Protestantism was not resistant to family planning, and birth rates illustrate that Protestants were managing their fertility. Nonetheless, early Protestant leaders who discussed abortion were firmly against it. In a commentary on Exodus 21:22, John Calvin writes, "For the fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man's house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light." Though opposed to abortion, Protestants lacked an "explicit moral reasoning" on why it was evil.
ABORTION IN AMERICA
Puritans arriving in America wanted to grow their communities through reproduction based on the biblical directive to "be fruitful and multiply" and the need for assistance with farming and survival. The high rate of infant mortality contributed to frequent pregnancies, with the hope that at least a few children would survive to adulthood, but many women died in childbirth or faced serious gynecological problems. European techniques for controlling fertility also traveled to the New World in family Bibles, letters, and cookbooks; additionally, american Indians and slaves from Africa and the Caribbean taught white women about indigenous herbs that induced abortions.
Without ultrasounds, fetal monitors, and the other technologies that we take for granted today, women relied on feedback from their own bodies and from a community of women. During the colonial era and the early nineteenth century, women mistook early pregnancy for an obstruction of menses, which upset the equilibrium of the body and required the restoration of menstrual flow to bring the body back into balance. This view was consistent with the medical theory at the time, which emphasized visible, sometimes violent measures, in order to restore the body to equilibrium when sickness upset it. Bleeding, blistering, and vomiting all pointed toward moving the body back to health and equilibrium. Thus women whose menses were blocked took drugs, often administered domestically with local herbs, and viewed the ensuing vomiting and evacuation as a positive sign that their menses would be restored.
At the end of the eighteenth century, with the upheaval of the American Revolution and similar revolutions around the world, women no longer saw themselves as inferior to men and pushed for equality, leading to decreased fertility and family size. Even during the Victorian era, when social standards for white upper- and middle-class women compelled women to devote themselves to home and family, advertisements for condoms, contraceptive devices, and preparations to induce abortion appeared in newspapers and periodicals in the 1860s. The situation was different for women of color. During slavery, female slaves were subject to the rules of their owners, who often forbid slaves to terminate pregnancies, as those children would then belong to the slave owners and be sold, separating families. Free black women were more likely to work outside the home than their white counterparts but may not have had the same kind of access to contraceptives or abortion, due to a lack of education and financial resources.
With the industrial revolution and the urbanization of America, the need for lots of children to work on the family farm disappeared for many Americans. People living in cities had more facile access to knowledge, including literature on reproductive issues. Public lectures, pamphlets, and books provided information about sexual anatomy, reproduction, the rhythm method (abstaining from sex during parts of a woman's menstrual cycle), and douching with spermicide. During this time, New York City sup- ported the business of more than two hundred abortionists, with varying degrees of competence and expertise. Suddenly male physicians with formal medical training found themselves in competition with irregular medical practitioners like midwives and abortionists, who were overwhelmingly female. So in 1847 physicians formed the American Medical Association (AMA). By requiring a medical license to practice, the AMA put the irregular doctors out of business and subsequently took a strict antiabortion stance.
Excerpted from "Pro-Choice And Christian"
Copyright © 2017 Kira Schlesinger.
Excerpted by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
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Table of Contents
1. A Brief History of Abortion from Prehistory to Illegality, 13,
2. Before and After Roe v. Wade, 27,
3. Faith and Fertility in a Changing Culture, 41,
4. What the Bible Does (and Doesn't) Say, 55,
5. Pro-Choice Churches, 67,
6. Reframing Pro-Life and Finding Common Ground, 83,
7. Where Do We Go from Here?, 99,
Questions for Reflection and Discussion, 121,
Recommended Resources, 131,