How are religious and ethical principles used in the abortion debate?

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Maisie Thornton

How are religious and ethical principles used in the abortion debate?

Abortion is a complicated issue and raises many significant ethical questions, for instance the nature of the personhood of the foetus, the issue of rights; i.e. should the foetus be assigned any, the extent of state authority over citizens decisions, and more. For some people, their approach to these questions will be secular, while for others religious values may play a heavy part. Although religious judgements have no direct relevance concerning the legal aspect of abortion in the UK, these beliefs have great moral significance and have contributed towards the ethical issues and past laws.

Many argue that morality and religion should be autonomous and therefore completely independent of each other. They argue that scriptural authority is unreliable and leads to problems of interpretation. Such people, would therefore say that any decision regarding abortion must be based on personal autonomy, without reference to any possible religious response.

Religion is, by its very definition, founded on beliefs and practices which are derived from various sources of authority. The major centre of authority in Christianity is God, although sacred writings such as the Bible, are also given great prominence as they can be said to contain contains the ideals of God. In general the Christian faith condemns abortion, with most Christians believing it violates the sixth commandment 'You shall not murder' (Exodus 20). Christian beliefs on ethical issues almost invariably then include references to the Bible, yet for pro-choice campaigners - especially those who are atheists, often argue that the Bible doesn't say anything explicitly about abortion. There are no references to women wishing to end known pregnancies at the time. This omission may be interpreted as unspoken  acceptance, however, it shows confusion to others. Abortion, just like heroin use is not directly mentioned in the bible, but is still frowned upon. Most believers find reference to abortion in other parts of the Bible. For example is  Exodus 21, which states 'If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the women's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.' 

When considering the wider contributions of religion to the abortion debate, it is immediately apparent that different faiths and denominations can take different views on he same issue. For example, the Roman Catholic Church has traditionally taken a firm line against the practice of abortion, citing the Bible and Natural Law. Given this emphasis, the Second Vatican Council defined abortion as 'an unspeakable crime.' However, the Methodist Church takes a much more liberal and situational approach to the problem; while it accepts that the foetus is 'obviously human', it allows that the circumstances of pregnancy, such as rape, may also be taken into account.

Almost any religious response to abortion is directed towards the idea of 'the sanctity of life.' The sanctity of life position values life independently of its quality or condition. A person's health, happiness, comfort, convenience, financial interests, aesthetic enjoyment, moral convictions, and so on are all non-life values and so are not valued by the sanctity of life principle. Within religious interpretation, human lives have universal sanctity as God made man in 'His own image.' An example of a form of the sanctity of life principle can be found in the Vatican statement which claims 'life is always good.' Applied to abortion, this suggests that human life is always of absolute value and that it must always be protected. The foetus is a living human being, therefore it is argued that abortion is immoral in destroying this sacred life.

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This belief that human life is valuable for its own sense and not as a means for something else is a stance advocated by hugely influential philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argues that people and foetuses have intrinsic value and not instrumental value - they cannot be disposed of for the benefit of others.

Philosophical claims to sanctity of life tend to base themselves upon the Natural Law argument put forward by the theologian Thomas Aquinas. He claimed that God as a Creator has devised a series of natural and observable moral principles. There is a fixed order and pattern ...

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