In an unusual display of authoritarianism, the U.S. Supreme Court changed the landscape of reproductive rights in June this year, by striking down Roe v. Wade, an epic legal ruling from 1973.
While Roe v. Wade guaranteed the constitutional right to abortion access across the country, striking it down has given states the dangerous ability to restrict or eliminate access without consideration of the various circumstances in which an abortion is required.
This will mean that all states are free to place severe, inhumane restrictions, or an absolute ban, on all abortions involving anyone carrying a uterus.
Abortions, which are already costly, will now be even more difficult to come by for millions of people. Pregnant people from all marginalized sections of society will be especially at risk for dangerous health complications and even death.
Many conservative states are already preparing to implement abortion bans. Some are also preparing to restrict travel for pregnant people, so that they can’t leave their state to seek a lawful abortion in another state.
With this wave of abortion bans, largely coming from conservative states where the anti-abortion stance is often seen as a key part of “family values,” particularly for Christians, an important question emerges: How Christian is the anti-abortion stance?
Abortion Rights Legalized by Roe v. Wade
Before diving into that question, let’s first clearly define exactly what the Roe v. Wade ruling did.
The landmark case began in 1969 when 25-year-old Norma McCorvey, using the pseudonym Jane Roe, challenged abortion laws in Texas as criminal. Henry Wade was the district attorney at the time defending Texas abortion laws against Roe’s challenge.
Norma had been raped and wished to terminate the unwanted pregnancy that resulted from that traumatic experience. However, her challenge was rejected in court and she was forced to carry to term.
In 1973, her appeal ended up in the Supreme Court, alongside the less renowned case of Doe vs Bolton challenging the abortion laws of Georgia. Together, the supreme court accepted the plaintiff women’s challenge: These anti-abortion state restrictions clashed with the right to privacy guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.
The court recognized abortion as an absolute right. But their decision attempted to strike a balance with the pro-life assertion of the rights of a healthy fetus in advanced pregnancies, while still considering the health and reproductive rights of the pregnant person in cases of life-threatening complications. The U.S. Supreme Court did this by adopting the trimester system:
- It accepted an absolute right to an abortion during the first trimester.
- It allowed for some government regulation of abortion access in the second trimester.
- It gave states the power to restrict or ban abortions in the third trimester, if they chose.
Thus the Supreme Court was allowing for assessment of each pregnancy against medical complications posing risk to a pregnant person’s life as well as the fetus’ ability to survive outside the womb if the pregnancy was terminated.
Demystifying Roe v. Wade
Roe v. Wade was never a complete solution to the pertinent problems of body rights and healthcare.
The decision was legally subsumed under Civil Rights, rather than universal Human Rights. Placing it under human rights would have met the tenets of reproductive justice, by making it the government’s obligation to ensure equal access to abortion services regardless of the mother’s demographics.
Allowing government regulation during the second and third trimesters kept the door open for involuntary servitude. Defined as forcing someone into unwilling labor, involuntary servitude is typically exemplified by slavery.
However, forcing people into labor through any means, be it discriminant jailing, detention, kidnapping, or coercion, is still involuntary servitude, directly against the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. constitution and the universal human rights to autonomy and freedom.
Restrictions to abortion access make it impossible for people to escape unwanted pregnancies, including those that result from rape or incest, especially with families that oppose termination.
Not treating abortion rights as universal health rights or broader human rights also leaves opens the caveat of obstetricians refusing abortions, citing religious grounds. You will rarely find other medically adverse conditions where a doctor can refuse treatment with such excuses.
The Christian Connection
The conservative politicians and activists who played a role in the U.S. Supreme Court’s latest ruling often cite Christian teachings as their motive. The main problem with doing so is that the United States is not a religious state, Christian or otherwise. Its citizenship is not legally restricted to Christians.
In a country where people are constitutionally allowed to practice, or not practice, any religion they believe in — where people of all demographics and religious backgrounds must coexist — a sweeping abortion ban is not only illogical but also unconstitutional.
But even if the United States were a Christian nation, would an abortion ban be in line with Christian teaching? If not, how did Christianity get tangled up in today’s anti-abortion rhetoric?
Does Christianity Actually Prohibit Abortions?
Christian leaders have typically taken the stance that abortion goes against Christian belief by equating abortion with evil and sin. But, as you’ll see below, these leaders didn’t arrive at that conclusion by reading the bible or consulting biblical history.
The Bible Has Nothing To Say About Abortion
That’s right. A talk with a biblical scholar or reading end-to-end the various biblical texts yourself will confirm this simple fact. There is nothing on abortion anywhere in the Bible. As one scholar put it, “there is no divine revelation to be had” for practitioners of Christianity, regarding abortion.
In absence of direct biblical guidance, the issue is left up to human interpretation, meaning it’s open to the sway of political and cultural forces.
So if it’s not expressly written in the bible, where does all the opposition to abortion come from?
Abortion in Biblical Times
The bible is a collection of various texts, many of which predate Jesus by many centuries. As many scholars of ancient history will tell you, the seeking and sharing of abortion methods existed as long as humanity. The first recorded incidence is from 4000 years ago, while the first major civilization with a record of induced abortion is found in the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, 1550 BC.
Scholar John M. Riddle finds evidence for use of contraceptives, abortifacients (abortion-inducing substances), and antifertility agents consistently throughout the pre-Christian era, including biblical times.
Notable scholars from the pre-Christian era also found abortion treatment acceptable under circumstances similar to the above “three trimesters” approach.
While the Hippocratic Oath prohibits the use of pessaries (prosthetic devices inserted into the vagina for medical purposes) to induce abortions, the famous first-century gynecologist, Soranus clarified this: The Oath prohibits both pessaries and major medical surgeries for other medical conditions for the same reasons: They were too dangerous at the time.
Thus, it is clear that throughout the centuries when the texts of the Bible were written and collected, abortion was both commonly practiced and understood with similar nuance that most of us are familiar with today.
Biblical Allusion to Mothers’ Rights
The Bible contains one indirect, but nevertheless clear, allusion to a pregnant person’s rights:
“When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” EXODUS: 22-25.
This passage clearly places harm to the mother far above the loss of the fetus. The loss of the fetus begets a fine, but injury to the mother’s health begets an equal loss to the perpetrator, suggesting that, even at this time, the mother’s health and life was valued over the fetus.
More than that, by compensating the family for the loss of a fetus with a fine, this passage suggests that the fetus was not seen as a person yet. If it were, it would have earned the equal loss under the logic of “eye for eye” as is demanded for any damage to the mother.
It’s no surprise that anti-abortion activists rarely bring these verses into their discussion.
Biblical Allusions To Fetal Status
The closest reference to fetal rights in the bible is again Exodus: 22-25, which treats the fetus as having value enough that a forced miscarriage is, indeed, a loss to the family. But the passage gives clear superiority and precedence to the mother.
There are a few other direct references to fetuses, but none that grant them rights. Psalm 139 (13) refers to God’s creation: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; / you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Jeremiah 1:5 cites God’s omniscient knowledge of a soul before conception in the womb: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”
Therefore, when pro-lifers refer to abortion as murder and talk about the rights of a fetus as if it were a living human being, they often dismiss the mother’s status and rights as a human being.
In doing so, they ignore the clear biblical direction derived from Exodus 22-25, which is: Give greater significance to the mother’s rights rather than the fetus.
While there are no direct or indirect references to maternal or fetal rights that can be traced to him, the bible provides ample evidence of Jesus engaging with and empowering women.
For example, readers do find Jesus saving a man’s life (restoring his “withered hand”) despit it being the day of the Sabbath when people should not work (see Mark 3:1-6). This clearly establishes that saving a person’s health and life takes precedence, even if doing so clashes with other laws.
The Anti-Abortion History of Christianity
The Christian prohibition of abortion does not emerge until around late first century or early second century AD. At this point, the idea that abortion is equated with “sin” and “evil” appears.
The reasoning at the time is similar to arguments heard today. The fetus is said to be a fully-fledged human being, which would make abortion a form of murder. For examples, see The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, and The Apocalypse of Peter.
The irony is that these skewed invocations of murder out of context were coming out at the same time that the Jewish tradition was solidifying the belief in the precedence of the mother’s life over the fetus’s, in keeping with Exodus: 22-25.
Even so, Christian leaders still made some exceptions to their moral opposition to abortion: ectopic pregancies and cancer in the reproductive organs. In these cases, the Catholic Chruch views termination of pregnancy as excusable under indirect abortions.
However, there are many other medical situations where abortions are necessary for the pregant person’s safety, yet its current definition of indirect abortion does not include any of these.
Catholic vs. Protestant
It is well-known that the largest division in Christian thought is that between the Catholic and Protestant churches. The strictest anti-abortion attitudes are based in the Catholic tradition. The Catholic tradition starts with Jesus Christ, but it was only after his time that anti-abortion attitudes emerged in this tradition.
As for the Protestants, who emerged in the 16th century, views were more varied. Mainline Protestants leaned pro-abortion. However, as divisions arose within the Protestants, conservative-leaning divisions began aligning with anti-abortion movements.
Meanwhile, more humanistic Catholics interpret the Church’s teachings about abortion with more leniency.
Regardless, what’s clear is that anti-abortion attitudes were not widespread during the historical period referred to in the bible, nor does the bible contain any passages that could be interpreted as anti-abortion.
The strong link between Christian thought and anti-abortion views is comparatively recent and far from a unanimous belief across all strands of Christianity or even all Christians.
Later, I will explore perspectives on abortion and reproductive rights in Islam and Judaism, before moving on to practices of abortion in indigenous cultures and other traditions around the world.
The only way to fight barbarism is through education and enlightenment.