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5 Religion and Reproductionlocked

5 Religion and Reproductionlocked

  • Rickie Solinger
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What ideas have structured religious thinking about reproductive policy?

Neither p. 34the Old nor the New Testament contains language specifically addressing contraception or abortion. Yet Judaism and Christianity—as well as other religions—have long taken positions on these matters based on interpretations of inspired texts. Regarding abortion, some religious interpretations have focused on whether the fetus is a full human being, and if so, at what stage of fetal development “ensoulment” or personhood is established; in other words, when does life begin? Two related key questions are, first, whether abortion is associated with either murder or with religious injunctions against the killing of innocent life—the Bible teaches, “Thou shalt not murder” and condemns killing the innocent; and second, how to weigh the value of the life or the health of the pregnant woman as against the value of fetal life.

Religious institutions also base ideas about abortion on questions about ecclesiastical authority; for example, does the individual have the latitude to make personal decisions about whether to end a pregnancy or does the teaching of the religious institution prevail in all cases? Further, do ecclesiastical interpretations take precedence over secular law in these p. 35matters, even requiring the adherent to be an advocate for religious principles in the public square?

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How do various Protestant denominations approach abortion?

In the United States, Protestant moral reformers were the first to mount organized, public opposition to contraception and abortion, starting as early as the nineteenth century. Anthony Comstock and others worked tirelessly in the 1860s and ’70s to rid the country of sexually explicit materials that appeared in public places, including circulars and newspaper advertisements for contraception and abortion. In 1873, the Young Men’s Christian Association was successful in convincing Congress and state legislatures to criminalize these practices. Today some denominational organizations, such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention, continue their opposition to all forms of birth control, grounding it in the belief that all human life is a sacred gift from God. Opinions vary about the rare and dire conditions (usually associated with a pregnancy-induced threat to the woman’s life) that may allow abortion.

A number of Protestant denominations, such as the American Baptist Churches, condemn abortion as a means of birth control and sex selection but teach that women who can approach the matter “prayerfully and conscientiously” might obtain abortions. Some denominations, including the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Methodist Church indicate that abortion is permissible only before “fetal viability” or under special circumstances, including those threatening to the woman’s physical or mental health or in the case of “fetal abnormalities.” A final group of Protestant churches, including Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the United Church of Christ, supports “a woman’s right to choose contraception and abortion as a legitimate expression of our constitutional rights.”

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What p. 36are the views of the Catholic Church regarding contraception and abortion, and how have they changed over time?

Some Catholic theologians have argued that over time the Catholic Church has seen abortion as a greater or lesser sin; others have argued that the Church has been consistent for centuries in asserting that life begins at conception and that abortion is the killing of innocent life.1 In 1869, Bishop Spaulding of Baltimore affirmed the modern Vatican perspective on abortion, writing, “the murder of an infant before its birth is, in the sight of God and His Children, as great a crime as would be the killing of a child after birth. . . . No mother is allowed, under any circumstances, to permit the death of her unborn infant, not even for the sake of preserving her own life.”2

In 1968, eight years after the birth control pill was made commercially available in the United States, many Catholics expected the Pope to moderate the Church’s position against all “artificial contraception,” that is, to weaken its opposition to the use of any method other than abstinence during a woman’s fertile period. But instead, in Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s opposition to all forms of artificial contraception, sparking unprecedented and widespread expression of dissent among Catholic scholars and others, a response that has been called “the greatest uproar against a papal edict in the long history of the Roman Catholic Church.”3 Charles Curran, a prominent professor of moral philosophy, spearheaded the dissemination of a letter of objection signed by over 600 theologians and academics, and American bishops issued a pastoral letter in response, “Human Life in Our Day,” arguing that dissent within the Church, in this case about contraception, can be legitimate.

Today some Catholic organizations, such as Catholics for Choice, continue to dissent against the Church’s stance on reproductive rights. Members of these groups define themselves as conscience-driven and part of the “overwhelming majority of Catholics in the U.S. [who] support access to legal abortion, contraception, and comprehensive sexuality p. 37education as well as separation of church and state.”4 Indeed, sexually active heterosexual Catholic women over eighteen are as likely (98 percent) to have used some form of contraception banned by the Vatican as women in the general population (99 percent). In addition, a Guttmacher Institute study of 9,500 women showed that Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as other women.5

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What does Islam teach about reproductive control?

The Muslim Quran specifically describes four stages of embryonic development, each lasting forty days. At the end of the third stage—120 days or three months after conception—the Quran teaches that the human spirit enters the body, and the fetus is considered “another creation,” or human. The Prophet Muhammad and numerous imams have commented extensively on the Quran’s account, generally affirming traditional injunctions against all abortion except to save maternal life. In recent years, however, some authorities have initiated new jurisprudential directions responsive to the Muslim interest in defining “the lesser of two evils” which might involve, for example, a ruling that permits abortion of a severely damaged fetus. Muslim authorities define their “respect for life” as discouraging all non-therapeutic abortions, although family planning is widely considered compatible with the religion’s teachings.

Shiite authorities generally forbid abortion after implantation of a fertilized ovum. Ayatollah Khameneii wrote, “The shari’a does not permit the abortion of a fetus . . . there is no difference between a fetus less than or greater than the four months gestation with regard to this matter.” The four Sunni schools of thought agree that abortion should not occur after four months’ gestation except to save the life of the mother; there is disagreement among Sunni imams regarding the circumstances that permit abortion within the first three months.

There p. 38are fifty-seven members of the Organization of Islamic Conference. Most of these forbid abortion except when a woman’s life is threatened, but twelve members, mostly former Soviet Socialist Republics, plus Turkey (which guaranteed the right to reproductive health in its 1982 constitution), Tunisia, and Bahrain (a politically and socially conservative Muslim state) permit widespread access to abortion.

A growing number of Muslim countries have begun to ­permit therapeutic abortion in cases of fetal anomaly, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Kuwait, Qatar, and Iran. This shift is due to a number of factors, including the writings of some leading authorities within both Sunni and Shiite traditions allowing this practice under limited circumstances; the problems associated with ever-expanding populations; health care costs in the midst of numerous health crises and constrained budgets; the number of illegal abortions that occur each year; the information provided by diagnostic imaging; and the inability of poor families to adequately care for babies born with severe anomalies. In 2005, the Parliament of Iran passed a law allowing therapeutic abortions when a fetus less than four months of age, that is, before the spirit is breathed into it, is suffering from profound developmental delay or profound deformations or malformations that cause extreme suffering or hardship for the mother, including life endangerment, or for the fetus. The mother and the father must both consent to the procedure.6

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How does Judaism regard abortion and contraception?

Judaism also has no singular ruling on these matters but expects every case to be considered on its own merits and a decision made after consultation with a rabbi. Jews today take a variety of stances, although most want to turn to their own traditions and conscience instead of being governed by civil authorities regarding abortion and contraception. Like members of other religious groups, they often base their opinion on p. 39the woman’s reason for seeking termination. Many orthodox Jews would approve of or even insist upon abortion in cases where continuing the pregnancy would put the woman’s life in danger. According to some, Jewish law is lenient about abortion during the first forty days of pregnancy, before the fetus has become a full person. Reform Jews tend to believe that any decision should be left up to the pregnant woman. Reform Judaism strongly supports the use of contraception and sex education to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

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What impact have religious teachings had on women’s reproductive practices in the United States today?

Most research has measured attitudes, not behavior, according to religious affiliation. But a major recent study of more than 1,500 women, age twenty-six and younger, who had made a decision as to whether to stay pregnant while unmarried showed that women who identified themselves as conservative Protestants (a term usually associated with fundamentalist denominations) were the least likely to report having had an abortion. The study found that, in general, young women often had a difficult time reconciling their decision with their religious training and beliefs, given other considerations, including financial, social, and health. Overall, the study found that a young woman’s high school and college grades and her parents’ level of education influenced her decision more strongly than did her religion. In fact, this first longitudinal study of these matters suggested that young women who had attended private religious schools were more likely to have abortions than those from public schools.7 Other studies have found that among those obtaining abortions, nearly one-third report themselves as Catholic.

In 2011, the Pew Research Center reported that a small majority of Catholics (52 percent) say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases; 45 percent believe that in almost no circumstance should abortion be legal. Evangelical Protestants p. 40remain the religious group most opposed to legal abortion, with just 34 percent saying abortion should be legal and 64 percent saying it should be illegal in all or most cases.

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How does the First Amendment’s “establishment clause,” guaranteeing religious freedom, affect matters?

Like Congress, many state legislatures are considering or enacting new restrictions on a woman’s right to have an abortion. Those who support these restrictions generally cite religious objections to, for example, private health insurance plans covering abortion, or their belief that women should be compelled to view images of “the unborn child” before having an abortion. Some legal scholars claim that the new restrictions violate the First Amendment’s “establishment clause,” which guarantees the separation of church and state. They argue specifically that by imposing such restrictions, the government is allowing one group’s religion primacy over the health care and reproductive lives of all women, many of whom have different beliefs from those embodied in the restrictions.

Opponents of this legislation also claim that the abortion restrictions discriminate on the basis of gender, since women primarily have to deal with the matter of pregnancy termination; legislators are not considering analogous restrictions on funding for Viagra or surgical procedures that terminate male fertility. Finally, some critics have argued that legislative restrictions violate other constitutional principles including the privacy right at the core of Roe v. Wade, and create demonstrable “undue burdens” for women seeking abortions.