For more than three decades, Americans have been deeply polarized over the issue of abortion. While the debate on abortion involves secularists as well as people of every religious tradition, the issue has become particularly acute among Christians because of strong views on both sides. Generally, the debate has been cast in terms of “pro-life” views and “pro-choice” views, but it is clearly a much more complex issue for Christians.
The legality of abortion was confirmed in 1973 when the United States Supreme Court struck down a Texas statute that prohibited abortion procedures, no matter how medically urgent they might be. This decision, commonly referred to as Roe v. Wade [410 U.S. 113 (1973)], is the most important legal milestone in the debate. In its decision, the Court acknowledged that it cannot rule as to when life begins, since even those in medicine, theology, and philosophy have no consensus on this matter.
Christian pro-life advocates insist that all human life is sacred and that human life begins at the moment of conception. From the point of view of pro-life Christians, America’s aborted fetuses are unborn babies who are killed through the process. As Pope John Paul II put it, “The legalization of the termination of pregnancy is none other than the authorization given to an adult, with the approval of an established law, to take the lives of children yet unborn and thus incapable of defending themselves.” The most vocal opposition to abortion has come from the Roman Catholic Church and from evangelical Christians, including activist groups such as Operation Rescue. The presumption is that there should be no abortion at all, a general principle to which some liberal pro-life advocates might carve out a series of exceptions, such as in the case of rape, incest, known deformity, or grave danger to the life of the mother.
The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights (formerly, the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights) brings together Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists who want to make clear that pro-life voices are not the only religious voices in the abortion debate. Describing their position as people of faith, the RCRR seeks to “support individuals in making their own moral decisions and stand with them as they struggle with the very real complexities of life.” The Coalition acknowledges that, “while people of all religions anguish over abortion, most feel this is a moral decision, one a woman must make for herself in keeping with her faith, beliefs, conscience, and her own personal situation.” Another voice in the debate is Catholics for Free Choice, an organization of Catholics who are both pro-choice and involved faithful Christians in the life of their parishes and communities. Catholics for Free Choice, founded in 1973, lobbies for women’s reproductive rights in Congress and legislatures. Results from a 2012 survey conducted on behalf of the organization showed that 60 percent of Catholic voters think abortion should be legal.
At the extreme, pro-life activists have included people who have engaged in a series of violent attacks on abortion clinics and doctors. In 2009, Dr. George Tiller, one of only a few doctors in the United States to perform abortions into the third trimester of pregnancy, was killed inside Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas where he was a member. Tiller had been shot before, in 1993, and his abortion clinic had been bombed in 1986. Another physician, Barnett Slepian, was killed in Buffalo in 1998, preceded by two other doctors in northern Florida and abortion clinic workers in Boston between 1993 and 1995. Despite these incidents, the vast majority of people and organizations within the pro-life movement do not condone the use of violence. Many are vocal, however, about the violence associated with abortion procedures, especially in the case of partial birth abortion.
In a decision that presumably involves a woman and a man, a doctor, and a fetus, the question of whose “voice” counts is highly charged. Pro-life activists often suspect the pro-choice movement of treating abortion lightly in the context of a so-called “sexual revolution” that takes sexual encounters all too lightly and where abortion is considered a method of birth control. According to this view, pro-choice advocates do not to grant any recognition or moral status to fetal life at all, effectively leaving the life of the fetus completely out of the process of ethical decision-making. The pro-choice side, however, often sees pro-life advocates as concerned only with the life of the unborn and callous about the lives and opportunities of those same children from the moment they are born. Pro-life advocates appear to give virtual sovereignty to the fetus, blind to the stark realities of poverty and human hardship, while ruling out abortion regardless of the circumstances of the pregnancy or the well-being of the mother.
Abortion is one of many difficult ethical decisions today involving human judgment on the line between life and death: expensive medical treatments, organ transplants, birth control, and “death with dignity” initiatives. Capital punishment, or the death penalty, is also a topic of great debate in the larger context of what Chicago’s Cardinal Bernardin had framed as “a consistent ethic of life.” A 2005 statement from the U.S.. Conference of Catholic Bishops frames the issue of capital punishment in a way similar to that of the abortion debate: “Ending the death penalty would be one important step away from a culture of death and toward building a culture of life.”
There have been some efforts to find “common ground” between pro-life and pro-choice advocates. In a 1996 Christian Century article titled “Pro-life, Pro-Choice: Can We Talk?,” Frederica Mathewes-Green documents the Common Ground Network which began in Missouri in the late 1980s when Andrew Pudzer, a pro-life lawyer, and B.J. Isaacson-Jones, the head of one of the largest abortion clinics in St. Louis began to have conversations. The two “enemies” met privately face to face for several months before appearing together to discuss the issues on a local television show. While they had diametrically opposed views on abortion, they found that there was indeed much “common ground” between them. For example, they agreed that both sides should seek more aid for women below the poverty line and for their children, both born and unborn.
Those involved in these dialogues say the discovery of some overlapping areas of common commitment is important. Mathewes-Green described one such discovery at a dialogue in Washington D.C. “In one small group, an aggressive pro-choice lawyer was talking passionately about the protection of abused children. She spoke about children’s helplessness before their adult attackers. ‘They’re so small and vulnerable, and they have no one to defend them.’ A pro-lifer in the group said softly, ‘You know, that’s the reason a lot of people give for being pro-life.’” At the same time, those who participate in these efforts are often criticized for talking with the “enemy.” Mathewes-Green wrote about one pro-life leader who characterized the discussions as “seeking common ground with proponents of murder.”
Through the process of face-to face dialogue, each side is challenged in its stereotypes about what the other actually believes. Efforts to find common ground continue, as evidenced in the October 2012 broadcast of “Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue,” a Civil Conversation Project event at the University of Minnesota hosted by Krista Tippett and the American Public Media program On Being. Dr. David Gushee, a Christian ethicist, and Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for Choice, demonstrated the kind of nuanced conversation not heard in this often deeply polarized public discussion.
Church Has Always Condemned Abortion
By Fr. William Saunders
The Roman Catholic Church has consistently condemned abortion — the direct and purposeful taking of the life of the unborn child. In principle, Catholic Christians believe that all life is sacred from conception until natural death, and the taking of innocent human life, whether born or unborn, is morally wrong. The Church teaches, "Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being" ("Donum vitae," 5).
The respect for the sacredness of life in the womb originates in Christianity’s Jewish roots. The ancient Jewish world was much different from the surrounding cultures of Palestine where infanticide, infant sacrifice and abortion were not uncommon, and in some cases prevalent. For the Jewish people of those times and orthodox Jews to this day, all human life has as its author the one God whose creative power produces the child in the mother’s womb and brings it step-by-step to full life. The Old Testament revelation, which the Church inherited and accepted, gives clear evidence that life in the womb was considered as sacred. Moses proclaimed, "When you hearken to the voice of the Lord, your God, all these blessings will come upon you and overwhelm you: May you be blessed in the city, and blessed in the country! Blessed be the fruit of your womb, the produce of your soil and the offspring of your livestock, the issue of your herds and the young of your flocks! Blessed be your grain bin and your kneading bowl! May you be blessed in your coming in and blessed in your going out!" (Dt 28:2-6). The angel told the mother of Sampson, "As for the son you will conceive and bear, no razor shall touch his head, for this boy is to be consecrated to God from the womb" (Jgs 13:5). Job stated, "Did not he who made me in the womb make him? Did not the same one fashion us before our birth?" (Jb 31:15). In Psalm 139:13, we pray, "Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb."
The Old Testament also testifies how God had specially marked individuals for an important role of leadership from the very first moment of their lives: "Beloved of his people, dear to his Maker, dedicated from his mother’s womb, consecrated to the Lord as a prophet, was Samuel, the judge and priest" (Sir 46:13). The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, "Hear me, O coastlands, listen, o distant peoples. The Lord called me from birth, from my mother’s womb He gave me my name. He made of me sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of His arms. He made me a polished arrow; in His quiver He hid me. You are my servant, He said to me, Israel, through whom I show my glory. Though I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly spent my strength, yet my reward is with the Lord, my recompense is with my God. For now the Lord has spoken who formed me as His servant from the womb, that Jacob may be brought back to Him and Israel gathered to Him, and I am made glorious in the sight of the Lord, and my God is now my strength!" (Is 49:1-5). Likewise, the prophet Jeremiah recalled, "The word of the Lord came to me thus: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you" (Jer 1:4-5).
Granted, some later rabbinic interpretations allowed exceptions for abortion, but there was no consistent or prevailing justification. The overriding Jewish teaching upheld the sanctity of the life of the unborn child.
The Greco-Roman world at the time of our Lord and in which Christianity grew permitted abortion and infanticide. In Roman law, the two acts were really not distinguished because an infant did not have legal status until accepted by the pater familias, the head of the family; until accepted, the infant was a non-person who could be destroyed. In some parts of the Roman Empire, abortion and infanticide were so prevalent that reproduction rates were below the zero-growth level. (Sad to say, most European countries face a similar plight today due to contraception and abortion.)
Nevertheless, the Christians upheld the sanctity of the life of the unborn child, not only because of the Old Testament revelation as cited but also because of the mystery of the incarnation. The early Christians, as we still do, believed that Mary had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and through her, Jesus Christ — second person of the Holy Trinity, consubstantial with the Father, and true God — became also true man. No faithful Christian would ever deny that Jesus was a true person whose life was sacred from the first moment of His conception in the womb of His blessed Mother Mary.
The story of the visitation further attests to the sanctity of life in the womb and the personhood of the unborn child: "Thereupon Mary set out, proceeding in haste into the hill country to a town of Judah, where she entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leapt in her womb. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and cried out in a loud voice: ‘Blest are you among women and blest is the fruit of your womb. But who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me? The moment your greeting sounded in my ears, the baby leapt in my womb for joy. Blest is she who trusted that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled’" (Lk 1:39-45).
Given the revelation of the Old and New Testaments, with special emphasis on the mystery of the incarnation, the Roman Catholic Church has condemned the practice of abortion. Several examples of teaching which span the first three hundred years of our Church include the following: The "Didache" ("The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles," c. 80 A.D.) asserted, "You shall not procure abortion. You shall not destroy the newborn child." The "Epistle of Barnabas" (138) also condemned abortion. Athenagoras (177) in his "A Plea on Behalf of Christians" (a defense against paganism) emphasized that Christians consider as murderers those women who take medicines to procure an abortion; he condemns the killer of children, including those still living in their mother’s womb, "where they are already the object of the care of divine providence." Tertullian, (197) in his "Apologeticum" likewise asserted, "To prevent birth is anticipated murder; it makes little difference whether one destroys a life already born or does away with it in its nascent stage. The one who will be man is already one." In the year 300, the Council of Elvira, a local church council in Spain, passed specific legislation condemning abortion (Canon 63).
After the legalization of Christianity in 313, the condemnation against abortion remained. For instance, St. Basil in a letter to Bishop Amphilochius (374) clearly pronounces the Church’s teaching: "A woman who has deliberately destroyed a fetus must pay the penalty for murder" and "Those also who give drugs causing abortions are murderers themselves, as well as those who receive the poison which kills the fetus."
While many other examples could be offered, the key point is that the Roman Catholic Church from the beginning has consistently upheld the sanctity of the life of the unborn child and condemned the act of direct abortion. To oppose this teaching contradicts the revelation of Sacred Scripture and Christian tradition. As our nation marks the anniversary of the tragic Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, we as Catholic Christians must pray for a change of heart in all citizens and courageously teach and defend the sanctity of human life, particularly that of the defenseless, innocent unborn children.
Source: Rev. William Saunders, "Church Has Always Condemned Abortion." Arlington Catholic Herald (www.catholicherald.com/).