Among the many arguments on both sides of the abortion debate in our culture today are positions based on religious belief. There are both pro-abortion and pro-life arguments from people of faith, each side claiming support for its respective argument from the standpoint of its own convictions.
I’m sure some of you are already wondering why I chose the phrase “pro-abortion” instead of the words preferred by those who support abortion rights: “pro-choice.” This will (I hope) become clear by the end of this post.
Folks of a religious persuasion who argue in favor of “a woman’s right to choose” abortion (the scare quotes here are not intended as sarcasm; I am quoting a phrase used by abortion rights supporters themselves) typically stand on an ideal of love. For these well-intentioned people of faith, compassion demands that a woman who finds herself in a circumstance she does not want, or who has been victimized through the crimes of rape or incest, must be allowed to terminate her pregnancy in order to also terminate the effects of an undesired situation. For Christians, the attitude is usually this (or something similar): “Jesus told us to love everyone. In order to love a woman who is pregnant and doesn’t want to be, we must support her in having an abortion.” Frequently, this reasoning will also be applied to the child in question: “The child is going to suffer/be abused/live in poverty/have a disease, so we love the child by not allowing it to come into such a dreadful existence.”
The last argument raises some troubling questions. All of us suffer, to a greater or lesser degree. I’ve gone through some truly dreadful personal emotional suffering in my life, and I’d still rather be here than not. If future suffering were a legitimate reason for ending life, not a single human being on the planet would exist. Might as well just wipe out the whole human race right now. As my Irish mother always says, “No one has a crystal ball” – it’s not up to me to decide that another person shouldn’t live because they might or will suffer. Who decides what kind, or how much, justifies death? Who has the powers of foresight to determine whether suffering might fashion someone’s character into just the kind of person the world needs? Go through the list of great achievements in medicine and civil rights, pore over the great literature and theatre of the ages, look at the lives of the great composers, and you’ll find that most of these people and the causes they championed were shaped by suffering.
So I’m not convinced by the “children who will suffer should be aborted” argument. Are we called to alleviate suffering? Yes – the motivation we experience to do something about suffering when we witness it speaks to an innate drive towards caring for the weak, “programmed” into human nature by the natural law. But it’s worth asking why we choose to alleviate the actual suffering of children and adults by giving them medical care while we choose to alleviate the potential suffering of children still in the womb by ending their lives.
The very word “choice” speaks to another concern of well-intentioned abortion supporters: the concern to safeguard human and civil rights. The legal and ethical right to abortion has become the litmus test for democracy in the western world.
Among Christians there is also another argument: “The Bible doesn’t say anything about abortion. Where scripture is silent, we have freedom.” This idea has been highly visible in the recent controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood’s pastoral letter stating that the Bible says nothing about abortion.
First, I would like to recall St. Paul’s words regarding freedom: “For you were called for freedom…But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh [“flesh” here referring to the capacity of human nature to commit sin]; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:13). Freedom has its limits, Paul tells us: freedom is limited by love – not love of self, but love of the other.
This brings us back to the compassion argument. “Yes indeed,” pro-abortion Christians might argue: “we are serving women through love by making it possible for them to abort unwanted pregnancies, so they don’t have to live a life they don’t want. We are loving children by preventing them from coming into abusive/impoverished/unhealthy situations.”
So how are we to define love? By ending the lives of others in an effort to “get rid of the problem” (and the defining of a human being as a “problem” leads into an entirely different argument), or by giving our own lives to the service of women considering abortion and to their children, by actively meeting them in their suffering and trying to work towards solutions that can assist them in leading meaningful lives according to their state in life and the capabilities they possess?
But what about the Bible argument? Is scripture really silent on abortion?
Frequently, the commandment “You are not to commit murder” (Ex. 20:13; Dt. 5:17) is cited by pro-life Christians; but this only adds yet another spiral to the circle of argument: whether or not abortion is actual murder. But there is another passage that, while not directly and explicitly mentioning the abortion procedure, speaks to the personhood of life in the womb. That passage is found in Luke 1:39-43.
The passage reads as follows:
“During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
The background is this: Both women are pregnant, Elizabeth about six months and Mary approximately one week. Prior to this scene, in Lk. 1:26-38, the angel Gabriel had informed Mary that she would become the mother of the Messiah, whom she would name Jesus. When Mary inquired how this was to take place, seeing that she was a virgin, Gabriel told her that nothing would be impossible for God, and gave her the sign that her relative Elizabeth, who was childless and had long been beyond childbearing age, was in fact six months into her own pregnancy. Elizabeth’s child will grow up to become John the Baptist, the prophet who announces the coming of the Messiah and prepares the faithful for his arrival by practicing “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 1:57-80; 3:1-22). Later, as a grown man, John also baptizes Jesus himself (Lk. 3:21-22).
As an expression of her trust in Gabriel’s words, Mary travels from Nazareth to Elizabeth’s home in Judea, presumably anticipating that her kinswoman will need help when her boy is born. When Mary calls out “Shalom!” to Elizabeth, the six-month-old fetus in Elizabeth’s womb hears Mary’s voice and “leaps for joy” because the pre-born John the Baptist recognizes Mary as bearing the presence of the One whose way he is to prepare. While John has been growing in utero for six months, Jesus is only an embryo not even two weeks into development. So the question arises: How could John recognize the presence of Jesus if there is no “Jesus” as such – if “Jesus” would only begin to exist as a human person at birth, or at earliest, at five or six months of development?
Assuming that Mary made the trip from Nazareth to Judea in a caravan – the most likely scenario, since the company of others would have provided a measure of safety when traversing long distances on dangerous roads – it would have taken her about a week, give or take a couple of days, to make the journey. If she left Nazareth the day after Gabriel’s appearance and her agreement to become the mother of the Messiah – which marked the moment of Jesus’ conception – then by the time Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s house the embryonic Jesus would have just entered the embryo stage of development, and at this point looking more like some bizarre alien than a human baby – a “bundle of tissue” so quickly dismissed in certain ideologies as non-human (or pre-human) and acceptable for discarding through being unwanted or as material for scientific manipulation. The developing embryo in Mary’s womb would not even have had a heartbeat when John the Baptist recognized his presence as the person who was Jesus the Messiah. Yet in the presence of this still-dividing mass of human cells, John leaped in his mother’s womb.
John’s mother Elizabeth also testifies to the personhood of Jesus when she asks why she is so honored to be visited by “the mother of my Lord.” Taking her cue from the child within her, and “filled with the holy Spirit,” Elizabeth understands that the week-old life form in Mary’s womb is her Lord.
So while this passage in Luke doesn’t refer to the specifics of abortion, it certainly suggests that not only life, not only humanity, but personal identity exists as early as a week after conception.
Is scripture silent on abortion? Do Christians have the freedom, based on scripture’s silence, to support arguments that embryos are not human persons? Not according to the Gospel of Luke. Not according to the Second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary upon which Catholics pray and meditate.
I used to be in favor of abortion rights. When I was in college, I was fiercely “pro-choice.” My position was that anyone in their right mind was in favor of abortion rights. At one point during this time, I was contemplating whether I should remain in the Catholic Church or “cross the Thames” and become an Episcopalian. As part of that discernment, I approached a Catholic priest and shared my misgivings about Catholic doctrine.
“I just have some serious problems with the Catholic Church,” I told him.
“Like what?” he asked.
“Well,” said I as I mounted my soapbox. “Like the abortion issue, for example. I just think that a woman has the right to do whatever she wants with her own body.”
“You’re right,” the priest said.
I don’t think there are many times in a person’s life when he or she can truly say that a single statement literally changed his or her entire life; but that is exactly what happened to me when the good father continued with this sentence:
“But in the case of abortion, it’s not the woman’s body that’s in question. It’s an entirely different body altogether.”
My world was rocked. I needed no further arguments or evidence, because what he said made such perfect sense. I became pro-life in that very moment and I’ve been pro-life ever since, with no interruptions. I walked away from that little chapel in Boston seeing clearly, for the first time, that an abortion was not equivalent to a nose job, or breast implants, or Botox treatments. There are two lives involved, I now knew – and both had to be cared for. Loving the mother, I came to realize, was not exclusive of terminating the child.
What about cases of rape and incest? Many pro-life folks believe that while “abortion on demand” is unconscionable, an exception should be made in such cases. The teaching of the Catholic Church, though, clearly holds that even when pregnancy results from such horrible moral crimes, the life of the child in utero should not be terminated.
This sounds like cruel and unusual punishment, doesn’t it? To force a woman to live with the constant reminder of horrific violations appears tantamount to emotional and mental torture (and indeed, the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture recently called the Catholic pro-life doctrine exactly that). How can the Catholic Church subject a victimized woman to such prolonged suffering?
The Church’s argument runs along these lines:
1. Rape and incest are grave moral evils.
2. When a pregnancy occurs as the result of the grave moral evils of rape or incest, the life of the child must be protected.
3. The life of the child must be protected because it is innocent of the crimes inflicted upon its mother.
4. To end the life of an innocent as the result of another individual’s crime is also a grave moral evil. Therefore, abortion after rape or incest adds evil upon evil.
Essentially, the termination of embryonic or fetal life for the reason that the life was the result of rape or incest only adds to the initial evil of the rape or incest. You can’t erase one evil by committing another evil. Terminating a pregnancy that results from rape or incest does not make the violation go away. It does not erase the memory of the violation. It only piles death upon death.
Perhaps a visual aid will help:
|Rape/Incest||Terminating the pregnancy||Allowing the child to be born|
|Spiritual death||Woman’s body becomes a grave||Woman’s body brings forth something good in place of the evil she suffered|
|Shame/guilt||Shame/guilt||Resurrection, life in place of death|
|Loss of control over one’s own person; a feeling that personhood is erased||Void, no opportunity for anything new; erasure of the child’s personhood||New beginning/new opportunity to regain integrity of personhood for both mother and child|
|Injustice against the innocent woman||Injustice: death sentence on an innocent human life for someone else’s crime||Justice in allowing the innocent child to reach his or her full human potential|
|Does not make the crime go away||Possibility of healing and hope|
If we block off the right hand column, “Allowing the child to be born,” all that remains are the left-most and middle columns. Terminating a pregnancy that results from rape or incest leaves only death, with no opportunity to turn darkness to light, no chance to take control and fashion life from death. Only death and injustice remain.
People of faith who maintain that a woman must endure nine months of a rape- or incest-induced pregnancy believe, in a sense of genuine compassion for the victim of such a vile crime against her person, that refusing access to abortion condemns the woman to prolonged emotional and mental torment. But I’m not so sure that cutting off any possibility of bringing life out of death wouldn’t be a greater torment in the end.
I think the bottom line is that we need to care for both mother and child – the victim of rape or incest must be treated with extra-special attentiveness to her situation. She must be counseled regularly and given every help necessary to understand that the child is innocent of the crime perpetrated against her, and therefore to condemn the child to death would be a grave injustice against an innocent life. Just as evil does not erase evil, one injustice does not erase another injustice.
All of this is based on the concept that human embryos and fetuses possess personhood and thereby possess human dignity. For a Christian who wonders whether the Bible has anything to say on the subject, the human identity and dignity of the child in utero can be found in Luke 1:39-43.
For Further Reading:
Bauer, Patricia E. “The Abortion Debate No One Wants to Have.” The Washington Post, 10/18/05. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/17/AR2005101701311.html (accessed 629/14).
Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011, paragraphs 2270-2275 and 2318-2323. Available online at http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church/epub/index.cfm (accessed 6/29/14).
Myers, Juda. “Conceived in Rape Silent No More.” Choices 4Life.org, 11/15/2013. http://choices4life.org/conceived-in-rape-silent-no-more/ (accessed 6/29/14).
“Silent No More Awareness.” http://silentnomoreawareness.org/ (accessed 6/29/14).
 See e.g. “NARAL: Pro-Choice America,” naral.org (accessed 6/29/14).
 See e.g. Dias, Elizabeth, “Christian Right Attacks Planned Parenthood for Praying.” Time, 6/9/2014, http://time.com/2849281/planned-parenthood-christian-right-tony-perkins/ (accessed 6/29/14). Planned Parenthood has since removed the Bible reference from the internet, perhaps due to the backlash the organization’s pastoral letter caused.
 This and all following Bible quotations are taken from the New American Bible.
 I’ve read various estimates of how long this first-century journey would have taken; most are in agreement on a range between eight and ten days. One factor is whether Mary’s group would have chosen to take the short route through Samaria, as Galileans traveling to Judea (and Judeans traveling to Galilee) would not have been caught dead setting foot on Samaritan soil, due to an ages-old hostility between the two peoples. Accordingly, travelers would have journeyed around Samaria instead of through it. This of course would have made the trip longer by a few days. Still, even if Mary had taken the long route around Samaria, Jesus would still have been an early embryo when Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s home in Judea.
 See e.g. NYer, “Vatican Blasts UN After It Calls Catholic Church’s Pro-Life Teachings ‘Promoting Torture’,” http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/3153390/posts, 5/7/14 (accessed 6/29/14).