Gleanings: A Researcher's Notebook of Resources for Religious Perspectives on Abortion

Something of a cross between a researcher's notebook and an annotated bibliography, the following notes and comments from various resources are intended to provide further information on diverse religious perspectives, and to give interested readers some sense of what specific sources might have to offer. -- Charles Ess, Drury College


General Readers

General Argument: Abortion as Justified

Protestant: United Church of Christ - Pro-life dissent from the national church

Protestant: United Methodist - pro-life dissent from the national church

Catholic Views

Catholics for a Free Choice

General Readers

Edward Batchelor, Jr., ed.  Abortion: the Moral Issues.  New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982.  While somewhat dated, contains several essays of interest, including a section on "Rules for Debate" (Richard A. McCormick, S. J., "Abortion: An Ecumenical Dilemma," Gregory Baum, and "A Call to Responsible Ecumenical Debate on Controversial Issues: Abortion and Homosexuality," Commission on Faith and Order of the National Council of Churches in the U.S.A.) and essays by Protestant and Catholic theologians (including Charles Curran, James Gustafson, and Beverly Wildung Harrison).

J. Gordon Melton, ed.  The Churches Speak On: Abortion.  Official Statements from Religious Bodies and Ecumenical Organizations. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1989.  An extensive handbook of statements from the Roman Catholic Church, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Churches, Jewish Groups, and "Other Religious Bodies," which includes American Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (now called the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice), Unitarians, and Wiccans.  A useful compendium for illustrating the diversity of views - accompanied by minimalist notes and commentary.

Janet Podell, ed. Abortion. (The Reference Shelf: Vol. 62: N. 4).  New York: H.W. Wilson, 1990.  A collection of articles from the popular and religious press, including four articles from conservative sources (Christianity Today, U.S. Catholic, and National Review) on "The Right to Live" (Part II).

In her article, "What Different Christian Churches Believe About Abortion," Christine Dubois summarizes nicely:

Many of the "mainline" Protestant churches (American Baptist, Episcopal, United Methodist, United Presbyterian, Lutheran Church in America, Church of the Brethren, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ) have gone on record as opposing any legislation that would prohibit abortion.  The positions vary from a belief that abortion is morally justified only under extreme conditions - such as rape, incest, or danger to the mother's health - to a more liberal position that a woman may choose an abortion for economic or personal reasons.  All express a regard for the sanctity of life and urge that any decision be a matter of deliberate thought and prayer.

That's not to say mainline Protestants think abortion is a good thing, only that thtey consider it a necessar option in a sinful world. (141, reprinted from U.S. Catholic, 50:33-8, August 1985)

Lloyd Steffen, ed. Abortion: a reader. Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1996.

Steffen's collection is commendable for at least three reasons. One, it offers a representative sample of the diversity of views within Catholic and Protestant thought (by including, for example, the anti-abortion views of (the late) Cardinal Joseph Bernardin alongside such well-known Catholic critics of those views, such as Marjorie Reiley Maguire, Daniel C. Maguire, and Charles Curran) - though the selections on Protestantism are relatively limited. Two, it further includes representative statements and articles from Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as two articles on the problems abortion presents for ecuminism, in light of the diverse religious views on the issue. Three, more secular philosophical views are also represented (in Part One, "The Language of Abortion: The Personal/The Public"), along with explicit analysis of abortion from within Christian perspectives (Part Three).

For all this balance, Steffen himself argues for abortion in his own contribution, and he lifts up Peter S. Wenz's argument ("Preface," xii) that takes free exercise of religion to require freedom of choice, in light of the diversity of beliefs regarding abortion both within and between given traditions.

Dallas A. Blanchard, Terry J. Prewitt.  Religious Violence and Abortion: the Gideon Project  Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1993.  Written by an anthropologist and sociologist (who is also a Methodist minister), provides a detailed study of four people convicted and sentenced for the bombing of three abortion clinics on Christmas Day, 1984.  (Gideon killed those who sacrificed their firstborn children to Baal.)

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General Argument: Abortion as Justified

Beverly Wildung Harrison.  Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.  Harrison's work (also represented in the Batchelor collection, above) is centrally influential for religious liberals - and is explicitly attacked by religous conservatives: cf. Randall E. Otto, "The Relativism of Pro-choice Ethics," in the U.C.C. anti-abortion collection, below, p. 2.

Peter S. Wenz.  Abortion Rights as Religious Freedom. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1992.

Wenz shifts the argument for abortion from the focus on the right to privacy (as central to Roe v. Wade) to the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In his analysis of its relevant rulings,

I find that according to the Supreme Court, this amendment prohibits laws whose sole purpose or principal effect is support for a religious belief.  I find also in the Court's interpretations of the Religion Clauses the view that religious beliefs are those that one cannot establish with arguments employing secular premises alone.  Secular premises reflect the agreements in belief, thought and practice that are integral to our socity's common way of life.  Religious beliefs, by contrast, are those that the Court considers to constitute, or rest at least partly on, beliefs that are optional in our society.  People in our society can agree to disagree about religious beliefs because our common way oflife is not jeopardized by disagreement.  The paradigm case is belief in the existence of God. (15)

Wenz also finds, most of the abortion debate turns on the question whether, and if so, when ,in its development the fetus is considered a person with corresponding rights, including the right to life.  In the face of this debate,

I argue that believing a human fetus to be a human person before it has completed twenty weeks of gestatiion is similarly a religious belief.  So laws restricting abortions during the first twenty weeks of pregnancy are unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment religion guarantees, unless they can be justified on grounds other than those which presuppose that fetuses are human persons during the first twenty weeks of gestation. (ibid)

Surprisingly, when Wenz discusses the question of "Belief in the Personhood of Young Fetuses" (170-175), he does not do so by examining the diversity of religious views on this matter.  [Compare here, by contrast, just this diversity as stressed by the Maguires (below) and used as a primary justification for laws permitting abortion.  Rabbi Feldman points out that the Talmud considers the question of when "ensoulment" - and thus personhood - occurs; but the question is rejected as irresoluable and irrelevant to the central Jewish concern with protecting the health and well-being of the mother.]  Rather, he takes the debate over the status of the fetus, especially the arguments pro and contra its personhood in virtue of its potential  humanity, to be irresoluble - and thus a religious matter.  Wenz's point here could be reiterated with a more direct appeal to the actual diversity of religious beliefs concerning the personhood of the fetus - as well as the diversity of religious beliefs concerning the permissability of abortion, at least under certain circumstances, even granting the personhood of the fetus.

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Protestant: United Church of Christ - Pro-life dissent from the national church

Affirming Life: Biblical Perspectives on Abortion for the United Church of Christ.  The United Church of Christ Friends for Life.  Lawrenceville, NJ: c. UCC Friends for Life, 1991.

Written in response to the U.C.C.'s study document on reproductive choice, Who Will Decide?, these are acollection of articles approaching the abortion issue "...from the standpoint of the historic Christian faith, and particularly from the perspective of our Reformed heritage." ("Introduction")  The authors collected here take the national U.C.C. position (favoring legalized access to abortion) to have thereby strayed from that Reformed heritage.

It is characteristic of more conservative materials to stress that Christian tradition, including its Jewish antecedents, have held firmly and consistently against abortion since the first days of the Church - while more liberal materials stress diversity of opinions over time.  In my view, this leads the conversatives to make overly simplified - and occasionally, simply false - claims.

For example, Robin Fox, in his "Historical Perspectives on Abortion" (13-31) takes up "Jewish Teachings" (15-16).  Relying on Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982), Fox seeks to argue that Judaism offers no support for "deliberate" (vs. therapeutic or accidental) abortion - and thus early Christianity represents a smooth transition from its Jewish roots in it (the early Church's) "unanimous" opposition to abortion.  

This is quite a different story than the one told by Rabbi Feldman.  While Fox (following Gorman) smoothes over the differences between the Palestinian and Alexandrian schools of Jewish thought - Feldman (following Aptowitzer) emphasizes a crucial distinction:  the Palestinian school, relying on the Hebrew text of Exodus 21:22, allows for abortion when the life, health, and well-being of the mother are at stake - while the Alexandrian school, relying on a Greek translation (the Septuagint) of Exodus 21:22, does not.  The Alexandrian school is more directly what early Christianity takes as "Jewish" - in part because the early Church takes the Greek Septuagint as its Bible.  But the Palestinian school, especially in its ethical teaching on abortion,  is what Aptowitzer and Feldman take to be "authentically Jewish."

Far from serving as a monolithic foundation for an early Christian opposition to abortion, as Fox would have it, Jewish thought represents a spectrum of opinions, and accepts - apparently, in sharp contrast with early Christianity - (therapeutic) abortion.

(Gorman's contribution to the Methodist dissent, below, seemed, on first blush, more accurate than Fox's use of it.)

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Protestant: United Methodist - pro-life dissent from the national church

Paul T. Stallsworth, ed.  The Church and Abortion: In Search of New Ground for Response. Essays by: Ruth S. Brown, Michael J. Gorman, Stanley Hauerwas, William H. Willimon.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993

These essays are collected with the general intention of "informing, and perhaps reforming, the heart and mind of the United Methodist Church regarding abortion." (Preface, 7)

Rev. Stallsworth is critical of the United Methodist Church for its compromise position on abortion - beginning with the Church's "'inclusive'" self-understanding (i.e., in scare quotes)which allegedly seeks to appeal to the maximum number of Methodists.  Rev. Stallsworth attacks the Church for what he characterizes as "apparent contradiction" in both acknowledging the sanctity of unborn human life while also supporting the legal option of abortion (Preface, 5).  He is equally unhappy with the Church's support of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (recently renamed as Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice) and its argument, on the grounds of "'religious liberty'" (again, scare quotes), for abortion rights (Preface, 6).

His position is laid out as follows:

It should be understood that the current United Methodist position on abortion is out of step with historic and ecumenical Christianity.  Through the ages the Church has consistently resisted abortion and offered ministry to those tempted by abortion.  Also, the vast majority of the churches in the world today - from evangelical Protestant to Roman Catholic to Orthodox - are, more or less, in line with classical Christian teaching on abortion.  For some reason (namely, the power of philosophical liberalism, which has been turned into an ideology of choice and applied to all spheres of life), oldline American Protestantism, including United Methodism, has insisted on a more "open" attitude toward abortion.  Therefore, on the matter of abortion, this church has broken,a dn continues to break, ranks with the catholic, or universal, Church. (Preface, 7)

This perceived break with traditional teaching, he continues, led to the Durham Declaration.  Modelled after the Barmen Declaration (drafted in response to the Nazi threat to the church, largely by Karl Barth), the Durham Declaration was released in 199 as a challenge to the United Methodist Church on the matter of abortion (see ch. 6, "Table Talk: an Account of the Conference Conversation")

This stalwart opposition to abortion, it should be noted, does not prevent the editor from including "The Panel of Four: Listening to Women," transcripts of four women participants in the conference which issued in these essays.  At least two of them suggest a more complex understanding of the abortion issue and possible Christian responses.  Kathy Rudy points out that a pregnant woman faces a situation more demanding and extensive than is usually acknowledged by anti-abortion activists (141f.).  Martha Clark Boothby observes that one of the central tenets of the Durahm Declaration - that we do not own our own bodies - is hardly a new message to women:

Women have never owned their bodies.  We have been property throughout history.  The Christian women's struggle today is not necessarily to own our bodies, but to own the stewardship of our bodies.  Men have not been good examples to us on stewardship of our bodies.  It is up to us, as Christian women, to teach people - and that includes our brother Christians - what it means to be stewards of our bodies.  The new message coming out of the churches is that our bodies are good and that they are a gift.  It is obvious that we in the Church have often carried a very skewed, wounded story about sexuality and the body that has been passed down to us.  It is time to proclaim the goodness of our bodies in creation, and to live that fully.  The ramifications of that, with regard to abortion, are certainly open to discussion. (143)

Boothby goes on to observe the connection between poverty and abortion, and says:

Earlier today several have said that the Church needs to properly condemn abortion.  Well, I am convinced that poverty needs to be properly condemned before we can properly condemn abortion.....How can we preach pro-life and not insist that our churches deal with the issues of poverty? (143)

William H. Willimon's brief contribution is interesting as it ties opposition to abortion to what he sees as the ministry of hospitality - a ministry enjoined by a closing promise in the baptismal service.  Abortion, he argues, "is a no-confidence vote in ourselves and our ability to welcome children," where children are the paradigm of the stranger we are to welcome. (20).

Michael J. Gorman (the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University, Baltimore, MD) offers a reasonably careful effort to establish a Christian teaching on abortion on the basis of the New Testament and early Christian attitudes and practices.

Stanley Hauerwas begins with a sermon from a former student, who uses the "little apocalyse" of Matt 25.31-46 as a text calling the church to endorse the sort of ministry of hospitality limned by Willimon.  This means in practical terms a church congregation supporting the mother during pregnancy, birth, and recovery, and adopting the child as "a child of the parish," - perhaps even to the point, as in the example of an African-American congregation, where the child is given to an older couple willing and able to raise it (48).  Readers familiar with Hauerwas's commitment to pacifism in particular and his sense in general of a necessary contrast between the mores of secular society and those of committed Christians will not be surprised by his opposition to abortion and, more importantly, his ascerbic criticisms of both individuals and communities who claim to be faithful but yet dare to conform to or agree with the moral norms of the larger society around them.  He offers an important and bracing critique of contemporary Protestantism as pietistic individualism which requires no radical difference from the larger society.

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Catholic Views

Stephen J. Heaney, ed. Abortion: a New Generation of Catholic Responses. Braintree, MA: The Pope John Center, 1992.

An extensive collection of essays by largely younger scholars which begins with the commendable observation that Christians are commanded to love one another - followed by the further note that "The Church has taught from its earliest days that abortion is a grave moral evil, and its performance is an action utterly incompatible with the truth about human nature and God's plan for us." (xiif.) This book was assembled for the specific purpose of demonstrating "with force and detail not simply what the Catholic Church teaches on abortion, but why it holds this position, and why this is the only position that really makes sense. (xiv)

The essays are organized into five topics: personhood; moral methodology and applications; feminist issues; pluralism, dissent, and the Magisterium; and Church, public policy, and the law.

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Catholics for a Free Choice

The apparently monolithic understanding of Catholic teaching shared by the contributors to Heaney's volume stands in striking contrast with the view on Catholicism and abortion articulated by Catholics For a Free Choice, especially as represented by ...

Marjorie Reiley Maguire, Daniel C. Maguire. Abortion: A Guide to Making Ethical Choices. Washington, DC: Catholics For a Free Choice, 1983.

This guide steps the reader through questions one would expect in a philosophical discussion of the issue, e.g., "Is the fetus a person?" But it is intended more precisely to help Catholic women work through the moral choices involved in abortion. The Guide identifies five beliefs which underlie its presentation:

1. In making moral judgements about abortion, it is important to avoid rigid and negative attitudes toward sexuality itself.

2. The decision to abort can be a moral decision justified by many circumstances; the decision can also be unjustified.

3. Abortion must be legal for women to even begin to make a moral choice with real freedom.

4. The abortion decision involves intrinsic values. These values include, but are not limited to, the value of a woman's life and her life plan and the value of the fetus.

5. We all have an obligation to work actively to create a society in which women will not need to choose between the value of their own well-being and that of the fetus.


In presenting abortion as a possible moral choice for Catholic women, the Maguires stress that it is a mistake to believe that "Catholics must believe that anything the Pope says on a moral subject like abortion is infallible." Rather, the proclamation of a doctrine of faith or morals as infallible must be declared as such - and only after the doctrine is already held "by most people as part of the faith of the universal Church." They state flatly: "The Pope has never done this on the matter of abortion. Moreover, most moral theologians in the Church agree that no Pope has ever issued an infallible teaching on any specific area of morality. Many even say that it would be almost impossible for him to do so because morality involves circumstances, and no one can know all the circumstances of each and every person in the world."

They acknowledge that "The Pope and most bishops hold the position that abortion is morally wrong. They believe that at some unknown point in its development the fetus becomes a person with an immortal soul." At the same time, however, "There is no Church teaching stating when ensoulment and personhood occur."

Over against this lack of official Church doctrine, the Maguires further stress that the laity are also "part of the teaching Church along with the Pope, bishops, and theologians." This means that their beliefs - including the 22% of Catholics who believe abortion should be legal under all circumstances, and 57% of Catholics who hold that abortion should be legal under some circumstances - should be considered part of the teaching Church. They further observe that "Catholicism also teaches that the conscience of the person is the final guide to be followed when deciding to act....You are not guilty of sin if you follow your conscience, even if most people in the Church would consider your action wrong." This inclusive view of the Catholic Church, one that finally stresses individual conscience, means for the Callahans that "the Catholic Church, when considered in its rich diversity, teaches that some abortions can be moral and that conscience is the final arbiter of any abortion decision." If this sounds somewhat different from what one might ordinarily associate with Catholicism, the Callahans explain: "Unfortunately, the Catholicism that is taught in many Catholic parishes does not reflect the richness of the Catholic faith."

The Guide also includes brief sections on Protestant and Jewish beliefs regarding abortion. In the section on Protestant teaching, the Callahans note that early Protestants were "even more rigorous" than their Catholic counterparts in the 16th ct. in their opposition to abortion, but that this position changed over time - first of all because of Protestant reliance on Exodus 21:22 and the Jewish tradition of its interpretation which takes the passage to mean that the fetus iss not considered a person. (They further claim that this is "The only passage in the Bible that even approaches a discusion of abortion..." - a claim hotly contested by anti-abortion folk.) They also note that the tightening restrictions on abortion in the 19th ct. arose for medical and racial, not religious reasons. They conclude:

Since there is no clear Biblical teaching prohibiting abortion and since Protestantism cherishes freedom of conscience without coercion from secular or religious authorities, mainline Protestant denominations today generally have issued statements declaring their belief that a woman has the moral and the legal right to decide whether an abortion is the right action for her with her particular circumstances.

Their summary of Judaism is especially concise and to the point:

An unborn life is not considered to be a person and so does not have the rights of a person. According to the Mishnah, the fetus becomes a person when the head or its greater part has been born. After this it may not be killed even to save the mother, because it would mean that greater value was being given to one person's life over another's. But destruction of fetal life before this time is not considered murder in Jewish law.

This further means that "abortion to save the life of the mother is not merely permitted in the Mishnah but was required, even during the delivery process, as long as the greater part of the fetus had not yet been born."

Still, there is no single Jewish position:

Rabbis in Reform Judaism generally take a prochoice stance ... while rabbis in Orthodox and Conservative Judaism are generally less permissive. There is no one unified group that officially speaks for all of Judaism, but the Central Conference of American Rabbis, as well as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which represents the Reform movement, formally support the woman's right to moral and responsible choice.

[This compares accurately with Rabbi David Feldman's comments]

Cf. Daniel C. Maguire. Reflections of a Catholic Theologian on Visiting an Abortion Clinic. Washington, DC: Catholics for a Free Choice, 1984.

She was almost six weeks pregnant. Her life situation was seriously incompatible with parenting and she could not bear the thought of adoption. After her abortion, she told us she thought she had made the right decision, but she paid a price in tears and soul trauma. I remember her piercing words about the rosary-saying pickets: "They were taking a precious symbol of my faith and turning it into a weapon against me."

Adoption is easily recommended at the bumper-sticker level of this debate. One patient I spoke with during a subsequent visit to the clinic told me how unbearable the prospect was of going to term and then giving up the born baby. For impressive reasons, she thought herself in no condition to have a baby. Yet, even at five weeks, she had begun to take vitamins to nourish the embryo in case she changed her mind. "If I continued this nurture for nine months, how could I hand over to someone else what would then be my baby?" It struck me forcefully how aloof and misogynist it is not to see that the adoption path is supererogatory. Here is one more instance of male moralists' prescribing the heroic for women as if it were simply normal and mandatory.

I learned that some of these men [protesting at the abortion clinic] had been coming every Saturday for eight years. The language was filled with allusions to the Nazi Holocaust. Clearly, they imagine themselves at the ovens of Auschwitz, standing in noble protest as innocent persons are led to their deaths. There could hardly be any higher drama in their lives. They seem not to know that the Nazis were anti-abortion too - for Aryans. They also miss the anti-Semitism and insult in this use of Holocaust imagery. The six million Jews and two million to three million Poles, Gypsies and homosexuals killed were actual, not potential, persons. Comparing their human dignity to that of pre-personal embryos is no tribute to the Holocaust dead. Jews and other survivors of victims are not flattered.

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Robert Cavalier, Carnegie Mellon and Charles Ess, Drury College