Last month Ireland voted overwhelmingly to repeal its near-total ban on abortion. The electorate has told the government to overturn the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution [inserted only in 1983]. This decision, with some similarities to the electorate’s support of same-sex marriage, marks a sea change in the relationship between Church and people – for the majority of church leaders, and significantly the Roman Catholic Church, had campaigned vociferously against repeal.
Abortion is a subject that liberal protestant preachers don’t talk about often. Christians have differing opinions on abortion, as I imagine members of St Luke’s do. Ethically it has grey areas, and evokes strong emotions. The Bible is silent on the subject. The abortion debate is a reminder of how the Church has often aligned itself with other male bodies – like the judiciary and legislature – to pontificate and adjudicate over the bodies of women. The silence from the pulpit may also be due to most preachers being men.
Abortion is not just about ethics in an abstract sense. It is about women’s bodies and women’s lives and the developing life they carry. It is about loss, shame, fear, grief, hope, family, love, and future. It intersects with the all-too-common realities of hardship, violence, poverty, and the lack of choices. To talk about abortion is to recognise the pain of decisions, even right decisions. To talk about abortion is to recognise that for many women the decisions one has to make are seldom ideal.
This is why the Presbyterian Church USA, in noting that abortion is a careful ethical decision for the woman, enjoins congregations “to pray for and support those who face these choices, [and] to offer support for women and families”[i]. The role of church is to assist in empowering, resourcing and supporting women to make difficult ethical decisions.
Abortion is not simply a matter of the rights of the foetus versus the rights of the mother. There are larger societal issues to consider too. Like the patriarchal impulse to control women.
We Christians are people of the Book. We know that the Bible and our subsequent history largely reveal not only a male dominated world, but a world where women were considered lesser human beings who needed to be controlled. In particular women’s sexuality and their procreative choices needed to be controlled. Sure there were, and continue to be, women and men who rebelled and fought against such control, and some of their stories have come down to us. But the bigger picture is patriarchy. Patriarchy is the very opposite of resourcing and encouraging women’s empowerment.
Another larger societal issue is the social and economic context of poverty. Prohibitions on abortion primarily affect poor women. As Tina Beattie says, “A church that was truly dedicated to the alleviation of needless suffering at all stages of life would recognize that this could be far more effectively achieved by the provision of effective contraception to women and of good health facilities during pregnancy and childbirth, than by pontificating about abortion.”[ii] Prohibitions on abortion have long been able to be circumvented by women with the resources to go elsewhere. So a ban is in effect a curtailing of options for poorer women.
Another societal issue that intersects with abortion is the general lack of priority given to babies and children, especially in New Zealand. We are not a ‘God zone’ for kids. Look at the statistics: infant mortality, child poverty, abuse, education resourcing... Look at the salaries we think are acceptable for those who work with children. Why are we making it harder in terms of employment and career advancement for women and men who want to spend the first five years of their child’s life as the primary carer? Why can’t we turn our society upside down to put children first, and then maybe we’ll learn how vital is their mothers’ wellbeing and empowerment?
The starting place for many Roman Catholics and some Protestant Christians is that abortion is murder. So while talk about women’s empowerment is all well and good, the unborn have rights – the same rights as a child. These rights, it is argued, come at the moment of conception. Abortion is therefore something that should only be considered when the mother’s life is in danger.
This view does not consider the decision to terminate a pregnancy to be that of the mother, just as to kill a child should not be the decision of the mother. Society at large, it is concluded, expressed through the government and judiciary, has an obligation to protect the lives of its people, including a foetus.
Within Roman Catholicism there are more liberal thinkers who wish to moderate this stance, to not criminalize women who do choose to terminate their pregnancy, and to provide significant resources to assist mothers and families. Their hope is that abortion should, when it happens, be safe, legal and rare.
The Jewish and mainline Protestant majority view is that a foetus is fundamentally different from a child and does not have the same rights as a child. As our Presbyterian Public Questions Committee stated in 1971, and reiterated in 1986, ‘abortion is not to be equated with murder’. The Committee went on to say that the law should not impose any particular morality on people and should recognise the rights of women to exercise a responsible control over their fertility.
However our Public Questions Committee wrestled with language to both express support for women and also their opinion that abortion was undesirable. As reflective of the time, there is a good dose of paternalism in some of its language. The Public Questions Committee called the foetus a potential human being which warrants a measure of protection, particularly in the late second and third trimester.
The Jewish ethical position on abortion begins with the interpretation of Exodus 21:22 – when a pregnant woman is hurt during a fight resulting in a miscarriage, and the offender pays a fine. The rabbis note that the verse does not give the foetus the same rights as a human being. The Talmud goes on to state that human life or personhood begins when we take our first breath, and there are numerous verses in the Torah connecting breath (nephesh) and human life (living nephesh).[iii] There are also numerous verses about ‘birth-right’, not ‘conception-right’.
The argument from Psalm 139 that Yahweh knew the writer in an embryonic state has no more validity than Jeremiah 1:5 where Yahweh knew Jeremiah before he was formed in the womb. Both are poetic references to the omniscience of God, not supports for the notion that the foetus is a person (nephesh).
That is not to say that Judaism doesn’t take seriously life before and after the heart starts beating and brain activity begins. As the Conservative rabbinate says, “the decision to abort should not be taken lightly”. Most Orthodox rabbis sanction abortion only to protect the health of the mother. The Reform rabbinate, similar to our Church, leaves the decision in the hands of the woman or her family, but recognizes how difficult the decision often is.
For most of the history of the Roman Catholic Church a foetus did not become a human person until well after conception. St Augustine, following Aristotle, believed the soul entered the foetus 40-90 days after conception, and the Apostolic Constitutions of the 4th century allowed abortion if done before this period. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century thought similarly. Pope Innocent III, also of the 13th century, thought that the soul entered the foetus at the quickening [when a mother first feels the foetus move]. Pope Gregory reaffirmed this quickening idea in 1591 and set the time for it as 116 days into the pregnancy.
The significant change in Catholic thought came with Pope Pius IX in 1869 when he posited that while it may be unknown when ensoulment occurs, there was the possibility that it happens at conception. His thinking influenced the 1918 code of Canon Law, and its revision in 1983. In current Catholic thinking the emphasis is not on ensoulment but the merging of parental DNA at conception determining when human life [and human rights] begins.
Mainline Protestant thinking has by and large followed the Jewish direction – firstly with the notion that human life [with the associated rights of a human being] begins with the breath, and secondly with the ethical concern for potential human life in the womb. This leads to support for, in the early stages of pregnancy, the primary ethical decision being, in the recent words of Helen Clark, ‘between a woman and her doctor’, to the ethically grey area in the late 2nd and especially into the 3rd trimester of foetal development when the foetus could potentially survive outside its mother’s womb. Mainline Protestant thinking has not been supportive of late stage abortions except to preserve the life and health of the mother.
New Zealand Law restricts abortion to the first 20 weeks, except in life threatening circumstances. Our abortion law however is not one that empowers a woman to make a good ethical decision in the early stages of pregnancy. It gives the decision to two doctors, neither of whom she has likely met before. Further she must pretend, if it’s not a reality, that giving birth will be detrimental to her physical or mental health. Since there is now safe and tested medication that can be prescribed and then taken at home, why do we still insist as the law requires that the woman needs to take two trips to an abortion clinic? Further, abortion law is part of the Crimes Act marking abortion off as separate from other forms of health care and increasing the stigma around it.[iv]
It seems to me that, following mainline Protestantism’s historical majority position on abortion, we must join with those advocating for reform of our New Zealand laws in order that women are empowered, resourced, and supported in their ethical decisions and reproductive choices, and that when they do choose to have children both mother and child continued to be empowered, resourced and supported. Our hope continues that abortions will always be safe and legal, and the woman concerned supported as the primary ethical decision-maker.
[ii] Tina Beattie “The End of ‘Woman’ and the Ends of Women: A reflection on women’s rights in the context of Catholicism and the abortion debate”, p.78
[iii] For example Genesis 2:7, I Kings 17:17-24.
[iv] For further information around the need for abortion law reform visit http://alranz.org/ Note that Isobel Stanton, an elder of St Luke’s was instrumental in the establishment of ALRANZ and campaigning for law reform.