_Free Inquiry_, ''Perspective: Anti-abortion and Religion''

"Perspective: Anti-abortion and Religion", Betty McCollister, 
_Free Inquiry_, Winter '86
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As the abortion battle waxes more glandular and violent, it is easy to
forget what a new battle it is, especially in its religious aspects.

Although conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants now claim 
to speak for God on the matter -- while Jews and mainstream Christians 
tend to support pro-choice -- America's abortion laws were put on the books 
by doctors, not clergy.  And, although the church did condemn abortion 
from time to time, it usually recognized the "quickening" doctrine, proposed 
by Aristotle and accepted by Augustine and Thoman Aquinas, which stated that 
ensoulment took place at forty days if the fetus was male, at eighty days if 
female.  Dispatch before ensoulment was not considered a crime until the 
Vatican Council promulgated the idea that the fetus is human at 
conception.  The same council defined papal infallibility and the 
primacy of Rome.  It was led by Pope Pius IX, who had earlier proclaimed 
as dogma the Immaculate Conception of the Bessed Virgin (not to be 
confused with the Virgin Birth).

Anti-abortionists argue that modern science has confirmed the full 
humanity of the zygote, or fertilized egg.  They conveniently overlook 
other discoveries of modern science, e.g. that about a third of all 
conceptions are spontaneously aborted, usually without the pregnant 
woman's awareness; that the fetus is wholly dependent on the mother _in 
utero_ and very much so after birth; and that babies deprived of good 
care, either pre- or post-natally, are seriously at risk physically and 
emotionally.

Combatants on both sides believe in the sanctity of human life.  The
standoff is over what constitutes it.  Pro-choice advocates emphasize
quality over quantity.  They understand that the zygote is genetically
coded but view as "potential" that which must be nurtured by parents and
communitiy for fifteen to twenty years if it is to flower.  They don't
overlook the father's part in conception or his responsibility to his
child, which anti-abortionists often do, especially those who combine
their crusade with the misogynist, anti-sexual bias that has
characterized much of Xianity since St. Paul so powerfully shaped the
new faith. Typically, the fanatically religious anti-abortionists
display the same intolerance and callous indifference to human suffering
that God's bullies always have.  The insist on the right of the fetus to
be born but are indifferent to its fate after birth.

And yet medical men got the laws passed with no help from the churches.  
The best account of abortion history in this country is in James Mohr's 
_Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy_. It 
is short, clear, lively, fascinating and well illustrated, as well as 
being scholarly.  Mohr writes that abortion was taken fro granted in 
America, as it had been or millenia everywhere (especially when it was 
between a woman and her midwife) until about 1850, when members of the 
newly organized American Medical Association became concerned over the 
number being performed dangerously by medical quacks.  Motivated at 
first by a laudable desire to protect women's healthe, they later 
included in their propaganda arsenal the anti-feminist argument that God 
cretaed woment to bear children adn the racist argument that racially 
inferior and undesirable Catholic women -- "the ignorant, the low-lived, 
and the alien" -- were outbreeding "our own population as WASP women 
aborted, and that "America is fast losing her national characteristics." 
As an example of how things change, this argument, which is not used at 
all nowadays, was very effective with state legislatures when there 
lobbied by doctors fighting against abortion.

The doctors leveled more than one broadside at churches and clergy.  
Medical journals acidly suggested that the churches placed revenue for 
abortifacient ads above righteousness and called the clerics of the time 
cowards and hypocrites, as in this blast from the Missouri State Medical 
Association in 1863:

      Fearful as are the numbers of criminal abortions...we have yet 
      to find the subject entertained by any one of the numberous conclaves
      of the religious men of our country who sit in high authority all over 
      the land, and who pronounce upon topics political, religious, and 
      governmental. 

A short excursion into American history won;t end the war, but it should 
defuse the religious argument to an extent.  Whether or not abortion is 
permissible, it has rarely been a religious issue until the past decade. 
As a reviewer in the _Christian Century_ wrpte: "Mohr makes it 
abundantly clear that the Supreme Court decisions of the 1970s were not 
a modern meakening of moral statndards but a return to what Americans 
believed and practiced a hundred years ago."

Nor does Scripture give authority to the anti-abortionists.  The word 
_abortion_ itself is not to be found in any of the Bible's 1200 pages.  
There are only two references to the matter, neither suggesting that the 
conceptus in fully human.  In Exodus 21, a person who causes a woman to 
lose her fetus against her will must pay a fine; if she dies as well, he 
must pay with his life.  The woman is fully human; the fetus is not.  In 
Numbers 5, a woman accused of adultery is required to drink a potion; if 
she aborts, she is found guilty.  This hardly implies a fully human 
fetus.  Religious citizens have every right, it should go without 
saying, to believe for sectarian reasons that abortion is murder.  But 
religious history isn't behind them on this one.  Nither is the First 
Amendment which requires us to respect the religoius beliefs of others.


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