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  • Behnaz Moludy

abortion

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

By: Behnaz Moludy


Introduction:


The topic of has been of significant interest within both legal and religious systems, particularly in contexts that emphasise the absolute sanctity of human life. Among these religious systems, Christianity, an Abrahamic faith (alongside Judaism and Islam), known for its strong moral principles, has addressed the matter of abortion. This text aims to explore the general perspective of Christianity on this issue, culminating in the author's presentation of their conclusion.


Abortion in the New Testament:

The New Testament does not explicitly mention abortion. Its focus is predominantly ethical, with less emphasis on religious laws and regulations. Even the legal aspects of the Old Testament are often interpreted ethically. For instance, in the New Testament, we find teachings such as, "You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brotherc will be liable to judgment." (ESV).


Among these ethical teachings, there is no explicit condemnation of abortion. In the legal mandates of the Torah (Exodus 21: 22-25), there is no specific discussion of abortion either, except in cases where a woman undergoes abortion during a dispute, leading to the one responsible for the abortion compensating the husband for damages.


Abortion from the Perspective of Catholic Christianity:

Considering that the largest group of Christians in the world is Catholics, and the views of other Christian denominations have been influenced by them, this article will commence by addressing this group and utilising it as a foundational perspective. Subsequently, we will transition to explore the perspectives of other Christian denominations.


The Human Status of the Fetus:

Despite the complex and contentious nature of the topic, Christian thinkers have engaged with the issue of abortion since the early days of the first century AD. The subject of abortion has consistently been a point of debate, with Christian ethics playing a central role in these discussions. Various ethical viewpoints on abortion largely hinge on differing assessments of the moral status and condition of the fetus. Within this context, three primary perspectives emerge:


a) The fetus is viewed as mere tissue or tissue-like, lacking distinct human attributes.

b) The fetus is considered a potential human being, with the potential for full human development.

c) The fetus is regarded as a complete human being, possessing all the rights inherent in other human beings (Robin Gill, 2011).


The traditional stance of the Catholic Church aligns with the third viewpoint. According to Catholic doctrine, the fetus is considered a complete human being from the moment of conception, and as such, it possesses an inherent right to life. The dignity of human life is recognised from its very inception, and this recognition extends to encompass all fundamental rights, most notably the inviolable right to life (Ioannes Paulus PP. II).



Christian thinkers often draw upon specific passages from the Bible to fortify their arguments about the sanctity of unborn life. One remarkable instance of this is found in Jeremiah 1:5: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." (ESV). This passage underscores a profound reverence for the unborn, pointing to a divine acknowledgment of individuals even before their physical presence is evident.


Additionally, Psalm 139:13 "For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb" (ESV) further emphasises the significant value attributed to unborn life. This portrayal of intricate creation within the womb signifies a divine presence and purpose in the development of each unborn human being.


Absolute Prohibition of Abortion:

Based on this understanding of the dignity and status attributed to the fetus, as well as the foundational ethical principle that the taking of innocent human life is inherently wrong, the Roman Catholic Church has consistently held and denounced any direct action leading to abortion, a stance maintained since its inception (Canon, Book VI). Some even posit that the issue of abortion and infanticide marked an initial distinction between early Christians and non-believers, as Christians were resolutely opposed to both abortion and infanticide, setting them apart from non-believers (Barnabas 19:5).


The earliest recorded explicit prohibition of abortion can be traced back to the Didache, believed to have been written in the late 1st century AD or the early 2nd century. Within the opening section of this guide, a commandment emblematic of the Christian "way of life" is stated as follows: "You shall not kill by abortion the fruit of the womb and you shall not murder the infant already born." (O'Rourke, Boyle, 1999).


Tertullian, an early Christian apologist, held the belief that the fetus was a complete human being from the very moment of conception. According to his convictions, abortion was only permissible when necessary to save the mother's life (Barr, 2017). Another significant Christian theologian, Augustine, introduced a distinction between a fetus with a soul and one without a soul. While he condemned abortion in both cases, he viewed abortion as acceptable only if the fetus had not yet received a soul.


In the 13th century AD, Thomas Aquinas, the greatest scholastic theologian of the Middle Ages, influenced by Aristotle, proposed a developmental timeline for the infusion of the soul. He suggested that in boys, the soul is infused around the 40th day of pregnancy, and in girls, around the 80th day or, as another source suggests, around the 90th day (12) after conception. The ideas of Aquinas and Augustine led to a nuanced approach, differentiating the severity of the sin of abortion based on the stage of fetal development. (Kelly, 2006).


However, the official position of the Catholic Church on this matter was established in the 19th century. In 1869, Pope Pius IX declared that the penalty of excommunication applied to abortion at any stage. Further, in 1917, a new set of canonical laws was established, stating that all aborted fetuses must be given baptism. This explicit instruction indicated that an unborn fetus is regarded as a complete human being from the moment of conception.


This perspective was reaffirmed and solidified by significant ecclesiastical events such as the Second Vatican Council and declarations made by Pope Paul VI (14). These actions served to underscore and confirm the Catholic Church's steadfast belief in the sanctity of unborn life, regardless of the stage of development, as an integral aspect of its theological position (Paul VI).


Views of Other Denominations:

Various Christian denominations, including different branches of Protestantism, have embraced diverse perspectives in response to the ongoing discourse surrounding abortion. On one side, many Protestants hold a staunch anti-abortion stance akin to that of Catholics. They generally advocate for anti-abortion laws and champion the right to life for the fetus. Conversely, there exists an entirely opposing viewpoint among certain individuals who firmly believe that women possess both moral and legal entitlements to choose abortion. A third group occupies a middle ground, with nuanced views falling between these two polarised perspectives.


This third group, while not devoid of internal variations, contends that abortion may be ethically permissible under specific circumstances. They maintain that abortion is neither a morally neutral act nor intentional murder, and it can sometimes be justified on the grounds of preventing harm (Curran, 2008). According to their belief, the primary responsibility for deciding to undergo abortion lies with the pregnant woman.


Luther and Calvin, two key figures in the establishment of Protestantism, held the view that the fetus is both a physical and spiritual being from the very moment of conception. They were both firmly opposed to abortion at any stage (Jones, 2005). During the early years of Protestantism, most Protestant denominations shared this perspective with the Catholics. However, in the 20th century, profound cultural transformations, including reevaluations of church authority, cultural diversity, shifts in sexual ethics, feminism, and more, led many Protestants to seek reinterpretations of traditional Christian teachings on abortion.


In contrast to the Catholic perspective, which regards the fetus as a fully realised human being possessing inherent rights from the moment of conception, many Protestant denominations, along with certain Orthodox and Anglican traditions, perceive the fetus as a potential living human with significant rights vested in the pregnant woman and other relevant factors. From this viewpoint, abortion may be seen as morally justifiable under specific circumstances (Fleming, Worden, 2004). The ethical justification for abortion varies among advocates of this stance, contingent on their interpretation of the importance and scope of the fetus's rights. A common position within this moderate viewpoint asserts that abortion is permissible for the purpose of safeguarding the life of the mother and preserving her health in the face of severe risks.


Within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, certain theologians consistently maintain the belief that abortion is morally wrong in all circumstances except when the life of the mother is significantly threatened. (Televantos, 1998) In contrast, certain Protestant thinkers hold the view that abortion can be acceptable in cases of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Additionally, some within these traditions accept abortion when there is compelling evidence indicating that the child, if born, would suffer from a severe genetic disorder.


One topic that engenders considerable debate and disagreement is the issue of prenatal testing for genetic abnormalities and other diseases. This matter becomes even more contentious when parents contemplate abortion upon receiving information about specific diseases.


The Feminist Perspective:

An alternative viewpoint on abortion emerges from certain feminist theologians within diverse Christian traditions, even within the Roman Catholic Church. According to their beliefs, although a fetus is acknowledged as human from the moment of conception, they contend that abortion is not universally indefensible. These theologians argue that opposition to abortion and the resistance to a pregnant woman's decision-making about the fetus stem from a misconstrued interpretation of the relationship between the pregnant woman and the fetus. This interpretation asserts that pregnancy defines the relationship between the two parties—the mother and the child—and as a consequence, the pregnant woman (as well as the physician) is obligated not to terminate the fetus.


However, these feminist theologians present an alternative perspective. They suggest that if this relationship is considered differently, an ethical question arises: "When, why, and to what extent is a pregnant woman obligated to safeguard the physical life of the fetus?" In this view, the duty of the pregnant woman is seen as an act of kindness and benevolence, which is contingent on her prior decisions regarding sexual relationships. This duty could potentially be limited to addressing the specific risks that pregnancy poses to her well-being. This perspective seeks to reevaluate the ethical dimensions of abortion by focusing on the woman's autonomy, well-being, and the broader context of her choices, offering a unique perspective within the ongoing discussions surrounding abortion.


Conclusion:

In conclusion, exploring Christianity's stance on abortion is a personal journey through the intricate interplay of faith, ethics, and the sanctity of human life. While the Christian Bible doesn't explicitly address abortion, various Christian traditions offer unique perspectives.

The Roman Catholic Church, a prominent voice, staunchly sees the fetus as a complete human being from conception, reinforcing the profound sanctity of life. This conviction results in a clear prohibition of actions directly causing fetal abortion, even amidst challenging circumstances.

Protestant denominations span a diverse spectrum of beliefs. Some closely align with Catholic principles, while others adopt nuanced positions, allowing for considerations of specific scenarios where abortion may find moral acceptance. This flexibility reflects the adaptability of beliefs to evolving cultural and ethical dynamics.

Eastern Orthodox traditions strike a delicate balance between preserving life and acknowledging the complexities of reproductive choices. They acknowledge exceptions when a mother's life is genuinely at risk, underscoring the value of life while grappling with the weighty decisions.

The perspective of feminist theologians adds a compelling dimension, redefining the relationship between the pregnant woman and the fetus. They advocate for autonomy, recognising individual circumstances and illuminating the moral intricacies surrounding abortion.

In the absence of direct biblical directives, the array of interpretations within Christianity unveils a community engaged in grappling with complex issues, all while staying rooted in core values like compassion, dignity, and the reverence for life. These ongoing dialogues and diverse viewpoints exemplify the living, evolving nature of faith, ethics, and the vibrant tapestry of perspectives within the Christian family.



Biblegraphy:

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- Barr, Julian. Tertullian and the Unborn Child: Christian and Pagan Attitudes in Historical Perspective. 1st edition. Routledge, 2017, p. 146.


- Code Of Canon Law, Book VI. Penal Sanctions In The Church, Can. 1397. Accessed from Vatican website: https://www.vatican.va/archive/cod-iuris-canonici/eng/documents/cic_lib6-cann1364-1399_en.html


- Curran, Charles E. Catholic Moral Theology in the United States: A History. Georgetown University Press, 1 April 2008, p. 58.


- Fleming, Marianne, and David Worden. Religious Studies for AQA: Thinking About God and Morality. Heinemann, 2 July 2004, p. 61.


- Gill, Robin. The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics. Cambridge Companions to Religion. 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press, 24 Nov. 2011, pp. 289-290.



- Jones, D. A. "The Human Embryo in the Christian Tradition: A Reconsideration." Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol. 31, No. 12 (Dec., 2005), pp. 711. Accessed from https://jme.bmj.com/content/medethics/31/12/713.full.pdf


- Kelly, Evelyn B. Stem Cells (Health and Medical Issues Today). Greenwood, 1st edition, November 30, 2006, p. 86.

- O'Rourke, Kevin D., and Philip J. Boyle. Medical Ethics: Sources of Catholic Teaching. Georgetown University Press, 3rd edition, 13 May 1999, p. 36.


- Paul VI. Humanae Vitae, Encyclical Letter. Accessed from Vatican website: https://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html


- Televantos, Anastasios. "The Orthodox Patristic Teaching on the Human Embryo and the Ethical Repercussions on Abortion and Related Issues." PhD diss., University of Durham, Department of Theology, 1998. Accessed August 10, 2023. http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/4865/1/4865_2334.PDF.


- The Epistle of Barnabas, 19:5. Accessed from Early Christian Writings: https://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/barnabas-lightfoot.html

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