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Contemporary Catholic Belief and Action

 

The mission of ARCC is to bring about substantive structural change within the Catholic Church by seeking to institutionalize a collegial understanding of church where decision making is shared and accountability is realized among Catholics of every kind and condition.
 
Once people start to believe change is possible, 
the drive to achieve it accelerates. 
                                          -   Patrick Sullivan, ARCC Emeritus President
 
 
 
The Importance of What the Bible Does NOT Say About Abortion
 
by
Ann Marie Bahr
 
Ann Marie Bahr is Emerita Professor of Religion at South Dakota State University. Her Ph.D. dissertation was on the meaning of "knowledge" in the Gospel of John. She is the author or editor of seven books and numerous articles on topics ranging from World Religions and Indigenous Religions to an Illustrated History of Christianity.
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“What does the Bible say about abortion?” It’s not a bad question since abortion has a long history and almost certainly was known to the writers of the Bible. 
 
Surviving texts from ancient Assyria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome all mention women who intentionally induce abortion.  Yet there is no mention of a pregnant woman or a midwife intentionally terminating a pregnancy in the Bible. There are, however, several instances of men terminating pregnancies.  Exodus 21: 22-25 describes an altercation between two men during which a pregnant woman is hit and consequently miscarries. The woman’s husband is given the right to set the amount of the fine for the loss of the unborn child. A number of passages (see, e.g., 2 Kings 8:12, Hosea 13:16, and Amos 1:13) refer to the “ripping open” of pregnant women as a war crime. There is also a story in Numbers 5:11-31 which may involve the drinking of an abortifacient. In this case also the abortion (if it is one) is caused by men—a priest and a jealous husband.
 
Was it only men who terminated pregnancies in ancient Israel? That hardly seems likely. We might attempt to explain the lack of attention to female-induced abortion by pointing to the patriarchal nature of ancient Israel: The Bible was most likely written by men and intended to be read by men. Therefore, its focus is on the good and evil deeds of males. But most ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures were patriarchal and, as we have just seen, a number of them do mention female-induced abortions. They also prescribe penalties for it. Why would ancient Israel not do the same? 
 
I don’t believe it was because prenatal death was of little significance. Having many children was considered a blessing for both mothers and for male patriarchs. Barren women like Hannah and Elizabeth prayed fervently for a child. If a man died childless, his brother was to conceive a child with the dead man’s wife and that child would become the dead brother’s heir. The survival and growth of the family was of preeminent concern, and the death of an unborn child must have been a significant loss. Yet there are no laws about what to do in such a case. The silence is deafening, and it speaks volumes. It appears that pregnant women, and the midwives and herbalists who attended to their needs, were free to deal with issues concerning pregnancy and childbirth according to their own judgment. 
 
There is wisdom in this silence of the law with respect to abortion. Pregnancy and childbirth contain serious risks for both mother and child. Life-or-death decisions often need to be made quickly and without fear of legal retribution, guided only by skill, experience, and conscience. It appears that ancient Israel trusted its child bearers, midwives, and herbalists to make the right decisions.       
 
If we were to strictly follow biblical precedent with respect to laws about abortion, we would have to avoid making it a legal matter. We wouldn’t make a law condoning it, and we wouldn’t make a law condemning it. We would debate abortion as a moral issue rather than a legal or political issue. 
 
I would support viewing abortion as a moral versus a legal issue because (1) I think that sometimes it is the right choice, and (2) health care workers should have the freedom to exercise their professional discretion, subject only to their own code of ethics. My conviction about this is rooted in a particular incident. My extended family is large and devoutly Catholic. Among all my relatives, I know of only one decision to terminate a pregnancy. My first cousin’s wife was pregnant with their first child. The embryo lodged in her fallopian tube, and she would have died without immediate surgery. It was too early for the baby to survive outside the womb, so the only reasonable choice seemed to be to lose the embryo and the fallopian tube in which it was lodged and allow her to survive. There are two fallopian tubes, so she could still conceive. My cousin and his wife went on to have three sons, but those three sons would never have been born had there been laws against abortion like those in El Salvador, where one can be imprisoned for thirty years for having an abortion. Thirty years would put even a young woman at the end of her reproductive years. 
 
I know there is another side to the abortion debate, of course, but I can only access it through statistics, not through the narratives of people whom I know. The statistics say that there are currently between 600,000 and 900,000 legal abortions in the US annually. Each year more unborn children are killed in America than the number of American soldiers who died in any war with the possible exception of the Civil War (620,000 deaths). In comparison, “only” between 700 and 900 US women die annually from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. That number will certainly increase, perhaps dramatically, with the loss of Roe v. Wade. But it is hard to imagine that it will equal the current number of induced abortions. Their sheer number makes it hard to argue that the current state of affairs is morally justified. 
 
However, both statistics and law are blunt instruments. Statistics don’t capture the reality of individual cases; they are an abstraction drawn from a lot of cases. And as for law, it is only helpful if there is broad societal agreement that can be codified. If public opinion is evenly divided, there will be ongoing protests against whatever law is passed, leading to ever deeper divisions in society accompanied by a tendency to vilify one’s opponents. 
 
While I don’t support a ban on abortions, neither do I believe that all abortions are morally justified. But I think the latter is the question that we need to ask: Not “Can I legally do this?” but rather “Is this abortion morally justified?” Ideally, laws should be simple and apply to everyone in all circumstances.  The question about moral justification, on the other hand, is designed for circumstances in which always-or-never reasoning does not apply. The right answer will differ with circumstances. That doesn’t mean that “anything goes” and there are no restraints on behavior. Rather, it means we must exercise our ability, as persons endowed with minds and free will, to find the best answer in each set of circumstances. One traditional definition of “conscience” is the ability to discern moral right from wrong. Freedom of conscience is the legal right to follow what one’s conscience dictates.  It commonly refers to freedom of religion but extends beyond the right to worship as one chooses. For example, conscientious objectors believe that killing is not justified even in time of war. That may be for religious reasons, but not all conscientious objectors have been religious. 
 
The free exercise of conscience was an issue of immense importance to the framers of the US Constitution. They separated church and state lest anyone’s conscience be subjected to government coercion. They did not mandate the removal of religion from all public life or public debate—to the contrary! They thought religion was necessary precisely because it provided a moral basis for society. In their wisdom, the founders of our nation simply sheared religion of coercive power by forbidding any government establishment of religion. Logically this should include forbidding governments to enforce the moral laws promulgated by religions, since legal enforcement is a form of coercion. But to forbid government to force one person’s conscience on others is not to say that expressions of conscience should be banned from the public square. Privatization of moral reasoning undermines the development of social consensus. In addition to laws based on razor-thin majorities, it is another reason for the sharp divisions and mutual mistrust which we see in the US today. 
 
What the founders did not foresee is that many of the institutions that informed moral reasoning in the late 18thcentury—e.g., religious institutions, the centrality of a liberal studies curriculum in higher education, and civil public debate--would not remain as prominent in society as they were in the founding period. They did not anticipate the secularization of society which occurred in the second half of the 20th century. They could not have imagined that the day would come when the academic disciplines most central to the formation of the capacity for moral reasoning--the humanities in general and philosophy, religious studies, and moral theology in particular—would no longer be the sine qua non of anyone who aspired to public service. They were not aware that an economic theory that showcases self-interest, and a political philosophy based on national self-interest, would one day supersede ideals of civic virtue and righteousness, and likewise supersede the national ideal of world leadership based not on the amassing of wealth and power but rather on the sharing of wealth and the spread of democracy. The result of these historical developments has been a downplaying of the importance of moral reasoning, to the point where most citizens never learn how to do it. In the eyes of other nations, we seem to have left our greatest moral aspirations behind as we seek only to maximize pleasure, pocketbook, and power. 
 
Contrary to what many people think, it is possible to teach moral reasoning without indoctrinating students. One can use examples from many different religions, or one can include different philosophers and moral theologians from within a single tradition. Either way, the student is being introduced to a way of reasoning that can be applied in many different situations, not to a universal and immutable set of answers. The role of an educator, whether affiliated with a secular or religious institution, is not to preempt the students’ right to make their own moral decisions. Students learn how to apply their own reasoning powers in their own unique circumstances. Teachers and religious leaders cannot pretend to have all the answers, but they can demonstrate how they and other people reason about moral issues. In a world in which moral reasoning is rarely highlighted, they can elevate its importance. They can help the public to see different sides of a question. They can provide the necessary background knowledge for analysis of different claims and viewpoints. But their role is not to make our decisions for us, just like it is not the role of governments to make our decisions for us. 
 
Each of us, whether female or male, are endowed by our Creator with reason and free will. It is an affront to God to deprive women of the right to make their own decisions, especially in those matters which touch most deeply their role as child bearers, a role which only they can fulfill. But it is an abdication of social responsibility to deprive citizens of opportunities for training in moral reasoning, or to deprive them of the right to speak in public about what their mind and their conscience hold to be true. Moral decisions cannot be coerced, but they can be nurtured. 
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