Abortion and Ethics
Ethics of Abortion: Is it Moral or Immoral to Have an Abortion?
Abortion is a Serious Ethical Issue:
Usually debates about abortion focus on politics and the law: should abortion be outlawed and treated like the murder of a human person, or remain a legal choice available to all women? Behind the debates are more fundamental ethical questions which aren’t always given the specific attention they deserve. Some believe that the law shouldn’t legislate morality, but all good law is based upon moral values. A failure to openly discuss those values can obscure important discussions.
Is the Fetus a Person with Rights?:
Much debate about the legality of abortion involves debating the legal status of the fetus. If the fetus is a person, anti-choice activists argue, then abortion is murder and should be illegal. Even if the fetus is a person, though, abortion may justified as necessary to women’s bodily autonomy — but that wouldn’t mean that abortion is automatically ethical. Perhaps the state can’t force women to carry pregnancies to term, but it could argue that it is the most ethical choice.
Does the Woman have Ethical Obligations to the Fetus?:
If a woman consented to sex and/or didn’t properly use contraception, then she knew that pregnancy might result. Being pregnant means having a new life growing inside. Whether the fetus is a person or not, and whether the state takes a position on abortion or not, it’s arguable that a woman has some sort of ethical obligation to the fetus. Perhaps this obligation isn’t strong enough to eliminate abortion as an option, but it may be enough to limit when abortion can be ethically chosen.
Does Abortion Treat the Fetus in an Unethical, Callous Way?:
Most debates on the ethics of abortion focus on whether the fetus is a person. Even if it is not a person, however, this doesn’t mean that it can’t have any moral standing. Many people object to abortions later in pregnancy because they intuitively feel that there is something too human about a fetus which looks so much like a baby. Anti-choice activists rely heavily upon this and they have a point. Perhaps the ability to kill something which looks like a baby is one which we should avoid.
Ethics of Personal, Bodily Autonomy:
It’s arguable that a right to abortion is a right to control one’s body and the death of the fetus is a unavoidable consequence of choosing not to continue a pregnancy. That people have some ethical claim to personal, bodily autonomy must be regarded as fundamental to the conception of any ethical, democratic, and free society. Given that autonomy exists as an ethical necessity, the question becomes how far that autonomy extends. Can the state really force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term?
Is it Ethical to Force a Woman to Carry a Pregnancy to Term?:
If legalized abortion is eliminated, then the law will be used to force women to carry pregnancies to term — using their bodies to provide a place where a fetus can develop into a baby. This is the ideal of anti-choice activists, but would it be ethical? Not permitting women a choice over being pregnant and reproducing is not compatible with justice in a free, democratic state. Even if the fetus is a person and abortion unethical, it shouldn’t be prevented through unethical means.
Ethics and the Consequences of Sexual Activity:
Pregnancy almost invariably occurs as a consequence of sexual activity; thus, questions about the ethics of abortion must include questions about the ethics of sex itself. Some argue, or at least seem to assume, that sexual activity must carry consequences, one of which may be pregnancy. It is therefore unethical to try to prevent those consequences — whether through abortion or contraception. Modern sexual liberty, however, is often focused on freeing sex from traditional consequences.
Does the Woman have Ethical Obligations to the Father?:
Pregnancy can only occur with the participation of a man who is equally as responsible for the existence of the fetus as the woman. Should women give fathers any say in deciding whether the pregnancy is carried to term? If men have an ethical obligation to support a child after birth, don’t they have an ethical claim on whether a child is born? Ideally, fathers would be consulted, but not every relationship is ideal and men don’t run the same physical risks as a pregnant woman.
Is it Ethical to Give Birth to an Unwanted Child?:
While anti-choice activists like to hype supposed examples of women having abortions to keep their careers alive, it’s far more common that women have abortions because they feel unable to properly care for the child. Even if it were ethical to force women to carry pregnancies to term, it would not be ethical to force the birth of children who are unwanted and cannot be cared for. Women who choose to abort when they cannot be good mothers are making the most ethical choice open to them.
Political vs. Religious Debates over the Ethics of Abortion:
There are both political and religious dimensions to ethical debates over abortion. Perhaps the most significant error which people make is to confuse the two, acting as though a decision on the religious front should necessitate a particular decision on the political front (or vice-versa). So long as we accept the existence of a secular sphere where religious leaders have no authority and religious doctrines cannot be the basis for law, we must also accept that civil law may be at odds with religious beliefs.
Abortion is a difficult issue — no one approaches it lightly or makes a decision about whether to have an abortion lightly. Abortion also touches upon a significant number of important, fundamental ethical questions: the nature of personhood, the nature of rights, human relationships, personal autonomy, the extent of state authority over personal decisions, and more. All of this means that it is very important that we take abortion seriously as an ethical issue — seriously enough to identify the various components and discuss them with as little prejudice as possible.
For some people, their approach to the ethical questions will be purely secular; for others, it will be heavily informed by religious values and doctrines. There is nothing inherently wrong or superior to either approach. What would be wrong, however, would be to imagine that religious values should be the determining factor in these debates. However important religious values may be to someone, they cannot become the basis for laws that apply to all citizens.
If people approach the debates openly and with a willingness to learn from others with different perspectives, then it might be possible for everyone to have a positive impact on others. This may allow the debate to move forward and for progress to be made. It may not be possible for broad agreements to be reached, but it may be possible for reasonable compromises to be achieved. First, though, we need to understand what the issues are.
Fetus, Humanity, Personhood: When Does a Fetus Become a Human Person with Rights
Debating the Status of the Fetus:
Abortion is the focus of some of the most intense social, cultural, political, religious, and ethical debates in modern American society. Some regard abortion as something people should be able to choose while others say abortion is a great evil which is destroying the moral fabric of society. Many of the debates turn on the status of the fetus: Is a fetus a person? Does a fetus have moral or legal rights? How we define a person and the fetus may decide the abortion debates.
The simplest definition of a person may be “a member of the species homo sapiens, the human species.” The fetus obviously has the same DNA as everyone else and can’t possibly be classified as any species other than homo sapiens, so isn’t it obviously a person? Assigning rights on the basis of species, however, merely begs the question of the nature of rights and what rights mean to us. The equation of rights with the human species is simple, but perhaps too simple.
DNA vs. Environment in Shaping a Person:
One premise in the argument that homo sapiens are the same as persons with rights is the idea who we are today was all present in a fertilized ovum because all our DNA was there. This is wrong. Much of what we are, even physical traits like fingerprints, is not determined by DNA. An embryo may or may not split into twins or more. Twins, identical or fraternal, may join during development, leading to a single person with more than one set of DNA. Environment counts for much of what we are.
Brain Activity & Interests:
Maybe we should focus on the ability to have interests: if someone is going to have a claim to a right to life, shouldn’t we first require that they have an interest in living and continuing to live? An ant has no conception of self and no interest in living, so has no right to life, but an adult human does. Where on this continuum does a fetus fall? Not until the necessary brain connections and activity exist, and that’s not until several months into a pregnancy.
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If someone has a claim to a right to live, shouldn’t they have some sort of independent life of their own? A fetus is only able to live because it is attached to the womb of the mother; therefore, any claim to a “right” to live must necessarily be at the expense of the woman. The same isn’t true of anyone else — at most, a person’s claim might entail support and help from the community at large. It would not, however, entail being hooked up to the circulatory system of another human.
For many religious believers, a person has rights because they are endowed by God with a soul. It is thus the soul that makes them a person and requires that they be protected. There are different opinions, though, on when a soul appears. Some say conception, some say at “quickening,” when the fetus begins to move. The state has no authority to even declare that a soul exists, however, much less pick one religious conception of the soul and decide when it enters a human body.
Legal Persons & Legal Protections for Non-Persons:
Even if the fetus isn’t a person from a scientific or religious perspective, it could still be declared a person in a legal sense. If corporations can be treated as persons under the law, why not a fetus? Even if we decided that a fetus isn’t a person, that doesn’t necessarily answer the question of whether abortion should be illegal. Many non-persons, like animals, are protected. The state could theoretically assert an interest in protecting potential human life, even if it isn’t a person.
Does it Matter if the Fetus is a Person?:
Whether the fetus is declared a person from a scientific, religious, or legal perspective, this would not necessarily mean that abortion is wrong. A woman could assert a right to control her body such that even if the fetus is a person, it has no legal claim to use it. Could an adult claim a right to being hooked up to someone’s body? No — it might not be ethical to refuse the use of one’s body to save the life of another, but it couldn’t be forced by the law.
Abortion is Not Murder:
It is assumed that if the fetus is a person, then abortion is murder. This position is incompatible with what most people believe, even most anti-choice activists. If the fetus is a person and abortion is murder, then those involved should be treated like murderers. Almost no one says that either abortion providers or the women should go to jail for murder. Making exceptions for rape, incest, and even the mother’s life are also incompatible with the idea that abortion is murder.
Religion, Science, and the Definition of Humanity:
Many may assume that a proper definition of “person” would end debates over abortion, but reality is more complex than this simplistic assumption allows. Abortion debates involve debates about the status and rights of the fetus, but they are also about far more. It is arguable that the right to an abortion is primarily a right of a woman to control what happens to her body and that the death of the fetus, person or not, is an unavoidable consequence of choosing not to remain pregnant.
It is little wonder that many people are anti-abortion in the sense of not approving of the death of a fetus, but pro-choice because they regard the right of a woman to choose what happens to her body as fundamental and necessary. For this reason, then, anti-abortion activists in America are best described as anti-choice because the ability of women to choose is the political issue.
This doesn’t mean that the status of the fetus is completely irrelevant or that debates about whether the fetus is a “person” are uninteresting. Whether we think of the fetus as a person or not will have a significant influence on whether we think of abortion is ethical (even if we think it should remain legal) and what sorts of restrictions we think should be placed on those choosing to have an abortion. If the fetus is a person, then abortion may still be justified and outlawing abortion may be unjustified, but the fetus could still deserve protections and respect of some sort.
Respect, perhaps, is the issue which deserves much more attention than it currently receives. Many of those opposed to choice have been drawn in that direction because they believe that legalized abortion cheapens human life. Much of the rhetoric of the “culture of life” has force because there is something disturbing about the idea of treating the fetus as unworthy of respect and consideration. If the two sides could come closer together on this matter, perhaps the disagreements remaining would be less rancorous.
Atheists and Abortion: Godless Views on the Legality and Morality of Abortion
Atheism, Atheists, and Abortion:
Abortion debates in America tend to focus on religious perspectives and what religious believers think. Godless views on whether abortion is moral and whether a woman’s right to choose abortion should remain legally protected are almost never consulted. This is somewhat understandable, given the fact that there is no single atheist position on abortion and no authority to determine what atheists are supposed to think. This doesn’t mean, however, that atheists have nothing to offer.
Pro-Choice, Anti-Abortion Atheists:
A common atheist position on abortion can be described as pro-choice yet anti-abortion — or, at the very least, pro-choice without also being pro-abortion. This position recognizes a difference between the morality of abortion and laws on abortion. These atheists find abortion morally troubling at the very least, but think that criminalizing abortion would only be worse. They probably wouldn’t choose abortion for themselves and might counsel against it, but insist that it remain legal.
Pro-Choice, Pro-Abortion Atheists:
Not all supporters of abortion rights also have moral qualms about people choosing it. Some atheists believe that abortion should be a legal right not just on the basis of ideas like privacy and personal autonomy, but also because there are times when abortion is a moral good and the positive choice. The fact that a woman is in a position where the choice is necessary may be unfortunate, yet this doesn’t mean that making the choice is something to be ashamed of.
Pro-Life, Anti-Choice Atheists:
Although the pro-life, anti-choice position on abortion is most commonly associated with conservative evangelicals, fundamentalists, and conservative Catholics, there are atheists who oppose abortion as well. They aren’t typically anti-choice for religious reasons, but their conviction is as strong as anyone’s. At the same time, though, I haven’t seen any atheists who sincerely think that abortion is the moral equivalent of murder and that those involved should be treated like murderers.
Atheists vs. Theists on Abortion:
The Christian Right tends to portray all their critics and opponents as godless, ignoring the fact that on some issues godless atheists agree with them while religious theists disagree with them. To say that they are blind would be an understatement. Atheists and theists disagree on whether any gods exist; they don’t necessarily disagree on anything else. There is far too much diversity among both atheists and theists to assume that they stand on opposite sides of any particular issue.
Abortion and Religion
Undermining Abortion: How the Christian Right Undermines the Right to Abortion
The Christian Right's War on Abortion and Women's Choice:
The most important issue for the Christian Right is criminalizing abortion. There is disagreement on the penalties for abortion (few want to treat it as murder, despite the rhetoric) and whether there should be exemptions (like for rape, incest, or the health of the mother), but there is agreement that abortion must end. There is no prospect of a total ban any time soon, so in the mean time they work on undermining it and hindering women's ability to actually obtain an abortion.
Parental & Spousal Notification, Consent:
One means for undermining a woman's right to obtain an abortion is to deny her the ability to make the decision on her own. Minors are required to obtain permission from their parents or, in their absence, a judge. Adult women are required to at least notify their spouses — which, in some cases, is effectively the same as having to obtain permission. Women are thus informed that they can't be trusted to make these decisions without adults or men providing input and advice.
Forced Counseling & Unscientific Advice:
Another example of not trusting women to make decisions about abortion is the requirement that they go through counseling before undergoing the procedure. Required counseling assumes that women haven't given serious thought to all their options already. Sometimes, they are even plied with unscientific and false information, for example about when the fetus might start experiencing pain. The entire purpose of these laws is to prevent women from choosing an abortion, not to educate and inform.
Waiting Periods for Abortions:
Distrust of women's ability to make decisions about having an abortion is also the basis for requiring waiting periods: women who come to an abortion clinic are forced to return days later to actually get an abortion. The ostensible reason is to give women time to reconsider their decision, as if they hadn't already thought deeply about it. The practical effect, surely recognized by those in charge, is that many women are unable to return and never get an abortion at all. That's the point.
Abortion Clinic Restrictions & Intimidation:
If there are no clinics providing abortions, then women won't end up having abortions. Anti-choice activists know this very well and have invested tremendous resources into protesting at clinics. Women are too intimidated to go. Healthcare professionals are too intimidated to go to work. Doctors are too intimidated to go into providing abortions — fewer and fewer even learn to do them. Some states only have one clinic left. Some clinics have no permanent doctors.
Restrictions on Abortion Funding:
Many forms of basic healthcare are funded, at least in part, by the government. Funding for abortion is banned, however. Even if someone works for the government, they won't get help paying to abort a fetus with fatal birth defects. The lack of funding for abortions can easily put them out of the reach of poor women who are likely seeking abortions because they cannot afford to care for more children. Ultimately, the state pays more to help these families.
Fetal Abuse Laws:
The Christian Right has demonstrated growing interest in "protecting" fetuses from various sorts of abuse. They want laws that treat attacks on women that lead to the death of the fetus as murder cases. They want to punish women who drink, smoke, or do drugs while pregnant. The point of all this is to establish in the law that a fetus is a person with rights — especially a right to live. If it's murder to attack a woman and kill her fetus, why not when a doctor kills the fetus in an abortion?
Limiting Valid Reasons & Times for Abortions:
Short of criminalizing abortion completely, an important goal for the Christian Right is to have severe restrictions on when abortions can be performed and the reasons for which legal abortions are allowed. Initial steps would be to limit abortions to just the first trimester and to exclude women who want an abortion for "frivolous" reasons. Slow, small steps would lead us up to these changes and, over time, perhaps to eliminate abortion entirely.
Restrictions on Contraception:
The right to abortion and the right to contraception are more tightly connected than most people realize. Both are based on a right to privacy and control over one's body, so attacks on one implicate the other. The Christian Right focuses on abortion, but they have been paying more attention to contraception. This is not a truly separate issue for them — it's all part of a larger assault on sexual liberty in modern society.
A Right Which Can't be Exercised is Not a Right:
The consistent theme of all Christian Right polices on abortion is to undermine or eliminate the ability of women to exercise their right to obtain an abortion. Anti-choice activists certainly won't deny this, since their long-term goal is to end legalized abortion completely. We should, however, contemplate what this means for the right to have an abortion itself.
Imagine if voting booths were only open for one hour a day and located far away from population centers. This wouldn't violate anything in the Constitution, so technically people would still have the right to vote, but what good is a right that you cannot exercise? For a significant number of women around the country, abortion services are as inaccessible as those hypothetical voting booths. Over 80% of all counties in America have no abortion services, so women have to travel some distance just to consult with a doctor — a significant hardship for poor women in rural areas. Then, they may be told that they have to return after a “waiting period” which government officials decided was necessary.
If women are denied the opportunities and resources to have an abortion, to what extent are we justified in saying that they have a right to an abortion in the first place? To make the right to abortion a genuine right, the government would have to assume the duty of protecting it — and that would arguably include ensuring that women have the resources and opportunities to get an abortion if that is what they wish. Even many supporters of abortion rights may balk at the prospect of the government helping to finance abortions, but that calls into question whether they really support abortion rights in the first place.
If someone only supports the “right” to abortion for women who can afford it, can afford the travel, and can afford the waiting times, isn’t that a bit like supporting the “right” of people to vote if they can afford to the costs of time and money to travel to distantly-located voting booths?
Abortion & Religion: Diverse Religious Traditions on the Morality of Abortion
Multifaceted Religious Traditions on Abortion:
When religious positions on abortion are discussed, we usually hear how abortion is condemned and regarded as murder. Religious traditions are more pluralistic and varied than that, however, and even within those religions most publicly opposed to abortion, we find that there are traditions which would permit abortion, even if only in limited circumstances. It's important to understand these traditions because not every religion regards abortion as a simplistic, black & white decision.
Roman Catholicism & Abortion:
Roman Catholicism is popularly associated with a strict anti-abortion position, but this strictness only dates to Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii. Before this, there was more debate on abortion. The Bible doesn’t condemn abortion and Church tradition rarely addresses it. Early church theologians generally allow abortion in the first 3 months and prior to quickening, when the soul supposedly entered the fetus. For a long time, the Vatican refused to issue a binding position.
Protestant Christianity & Abortion:
Protestantism is perhaps one of the most diffuse and de-centralized religious traditions in the world. There is almost nothing that isn’t true of some denomination somewhere. Vocal, vociferous opposition to abortion is common in Protestant circles but support for abortion rights is also common — it’s just not as loud. There is no single Protesant position on abortion, but Protestants who oppose abortion sometimes portray themselves as the only true Christians.
Judaism & Abortion:
Ancient Judaism was naturally pro-natalist, but without a central authority dictating orthodox beliefs, there has been vigorous debate on abortion. The only scriptural mention of anything like an abortion does not treat it as murder. Jewish tradition allows for abortion for the sake of the mother because there is no soul in the first 40 days, and even in the latter stages of pregnancy, the fetus has a lower moral status than the mother. In some cases, it may even be a mitzvah, or sacred duty.
Islam & Abortion:
Many conservative Muslim theologians condemn abortion, but there is ample room in Islamic tradition for permitting it. Where Muslim teachings do allow for abortion, it is generally limited to the early stages of pregnancy and only on the condition that there are very good reasons for it — frivolous reasons are not allowed. Even later abortions may be permitted, but only if it can be described as the lesser evil — that is to say, if not having an abortion would lead to a worse situation.
Buddhism & Abortion:
Buddhist belief in reincarnation leads to belief that life begins at the moment of conception. This naturally inclines Buddhism against allowing abortion. Taking the life of any living thing is generally condemned in Buddhism, so of course killing a fetus would not meet with easy approval. There are, however, exceptions — there are different levels of life and not all life is equal. Abortion to save the life of the mother or if not done for selfish and hateful reasons is permissible.
Hinduism & Abortion:
Most Hindu texts that mention abortion condemn it in no uncertain terms. Because the fetus is endowed with divine spirit, abortion is treated as an especially heinous crime and sin. At the same time, though, there is strong evidence that abortion was widely practiced for centuries. This makes sense because if no one was doing it, why make a big deal out of condemning it? Today abortion is available pretty much on demand in India and there is little sense that it’s treated as shameful.
Sikhism & Abortion:
Sikhs believe that life begins and conception and that life is the creative work of God. Therefore, in principle at least, the Sikh religion takes a very strong position against abortion as a sin. Despite this, abortion is common in the Sikh community in India; in fact, there are concerns about too many female fetuses being aborted, leading to too many male Sikhs. Clearly the theoretical anti-abortion stance of Sikhism is balanced by more practicality in real life.
Taoism, Confucianism & Abortion:
There is evidence that the Chinese practiced abortion in ancient times and nothing in either Taoist or Confucian ethical codes explicitly forbids it. At the same time, though, it isn’t encouraged — it’s usually treated as a necessary evil, to be used as a last resort. Only rarely is it promoted, for example if the health of the mother requires it. Because it’s not forbidden by any authority, the decision about when it’s necessary is left entirely in the hands of the parents.
Abortion, Religion, and Religious Tradition:
Abortion is a serious ethical issue and it’s only natural that most major religions would have something to say on the issue, even if only indirectly. Opponents of abortion will be quick to point out those aspects of religious traditions which somehow condemn or prohibit abortion, but we must keep in mind the very obvious fact that abortion has been practiced in every society and for as far back as we have historical records. No matter how strong the condemnations of abortion have been, they haven’t stopped women from seeking them.
An absolute condemnation of abortion is an abstraction that cannot survive in the real world where pregnancy, birth, and raising children are difficult and dangerous prospects for women. As long as women bear children, women will be in situations where they sincerely believe that ending their pregnancy is the best of all possible options. Religions have had to deal with this fact, and being unable to eliminate abortion entirely, they have had to make room for cases when abortion might be allowable.
Reviewing the diverse religious traditions above, we can find a great deal of agreement on when abortion might be permitted. Most religions agree that abortion is more permissible in the early stages of pregnancy than in the latter stages and that the economic and health interests of the mother generally outweigh whatever interests the fetus might have for being born.
Most religions don’t appear to regard abortion as murder because they don’t ascribe the exact same moral status to the fetus as they do to the mother — or even to a newborn infant. However much abortion might be treated as a sin and immoral, it still doesn’t generally rise the same level of immorality as killing person. This indicates that anti-choice activists today who argue so vociferously that abortion is murder and impermissible have adopted a position which is ahistorical and contrary to most religious traditions.
Abortion, the Bible, and Personhood: What Does the Bible Say About Abortion?
The Christian Right, the Bible, and Abortion:
Christian Right opposition to abortion frequently includes numerous references to the Bible; according to them, the only valid Christian position on abortion must be based upon what the Bible says. The Bible, in turn, unequivocally condemns abortion and endorses the idea that a fetus is a person endowed with rights. Why, then, are so many Christians conflicted about abortion and/or support abortion rights? Why doesn’t Judaism condemn abortion unequivocally? Because the Bible is ambiguous.
The Bible Says Nothing About Abortion:
The problem for people on either side of the abortion debate is the fact that the Bible doesn’t say anything specifically about abortion. There are no references to women seeking to end pregnancies, for example by using herbs or other chemicals, despite the fact that abortion must have been a known practice at the time. This silence might be interpreted as tacit acceptance, but most believers pick apart other verses in order to argue that some position on abortion is implied.
Abortion, the Bible, and Murder:
Exodus 21:22 says: “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 woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.” Exodus is clear that a murderer receive capital punishment, but killing a fetus is not punished with death. This is the closest the Bible comes to commenting on abortion; Judaism’s refusal to unequivocally condemn abortion stems from this.
The Bible’s View of a Person as a Decision Maker:
Genesis describes the creation of humanity as God making man in his image. Physical likeness and powers aren’t the point here, obviously. More plausible would be spiritual qualities. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God described them as having “become as one of us,” knowing good from evil. All of these depictions of humanity as a moral agent capable of decision-making apply to adult humans, but not to a fetus.
The Bible on the Fetus in the Womb:
A couple of verses suggest that a person exists already as a fetus. Psalms 139:13-15 describes God knowing someone in the womb. There are several reasons, textual as well as contextual, to read this more as poetry than as a literal description of the nature of a fetus. Similar passages elsewhere, like Jeremiah and Luke, aren’t so poetic but nevertheless are conveying information other than the idea that the fetus is a person. It’s a stretch to use these passages for anti-abortion purposes.
Using the Bible as the Basis of Public Policy:
At best, the Bible is ambiguous on the moral status and personhood of the fetus. It’s possible to use it to argue against abortion, but those arguments are inconclusive and perhaps not as strong as those using the Bible to argue that abortion is, at a minimum, not murder. In addition to all of this we have a further problem: regardless of what the Bible says, it is an inappropriate basis for public policy.
Even if the abortion unequivocally condemned abortion as a sin, that wouldn’t be a good reason to make abortion illegal. It would be a reason for believers in the Bible — Jews, Christians, and perhaps Muslims — to personally reject abortion and argue against others undergoing the procedure. That is not the same as criminalizing it, however, because criminal prohibitions apply to all citizens, not just those who regard the Bible as holy scripture.
Were the government to ban abortion on the basis of biblical injunctions, it would be elevating the Bible to a position of authority over everyone, Jew and Gentile, Christian and non-Christian. The government doesn’t have the authority to single out the Bible — or any one group’s interpretation of the Bible — for this sort of special treatment. Regardless of how important the Bible may be in some believers’ lives, they cannot abuse their power as an electoral majority to impose it upon everyone else.
Contraception & Birth Control: How the Christian Right Undermines Birth Control
Christian Right Opposition to Birth Control:
Opposition to birth control is increasing in evangelical circles which are, curiously, relying heavily on Catholic teachings. While Catholic teaching officially rejects the use of contraceptives, you don’t see Catholics trying to undermine access to them — but that’s what some evangelicals seem to have in mind. This is strange given the traditional Protestant support for family planning, but it makes sense in the context of the Culture Wars and some Christian traditions.
Sex Education & Abstinence-Only Programs:
One of the most visible means which the Christian Right uses to attack birth control is by opposing education about contraceptives and contraceptive techniques in sexual education classes in the public schools. There is a big push for abstinence-only programs, where students are taught that only about abstinence — not physical or chemical contraceptives. This helps people grow up relatively ignorant: if they aren’t aware of their options, then they aren’t likely to choose contraception.
Advertising of Contraceptives:
For a long time, TV stations refused to run ads for any contraceptives at all. These restrictions have recently been lifted somewhat, but condoms still aren’t advertised as a general rule. You also don’t see ads for them on the web. Christian protestors are able to get public ads for contraceptives taken down if they are able to argue that even the suggestion of sexual activity qualifies as lewd, obscene, or somehow in violation of community standards.
Pharmacists & Conscience without Consequences:
An increasingly popular form of anti-choice activism is for pharmacists to refuse to dispense emergency contraception (Plan B, Morning After Pills). It is argued that they cause abortions, even though the most they do is prevent implantation. Limiting access to emergency contraception keeps women from preventing pregnancies and increases the demand for abortion. It also helps blur the lines in between abortion and contraception, useful in any long-term effort to undermine contraceptive rights.
Availabilty of Contraceptives:
If Christian Right activists can ensure that pharmacists don’t have to provide access to contraceptives, this will open the door to putting pressure on pharmacists to refuse to provide contraceptives no matter what they think. The situation for contraceptives would be analogous to the current one for abortion: legal, but providers labor under intense pressure to get out of the business. The Christian Right may not be able to make birth control illegal, but they may could make it unavailable.
Right to Privacy and Contraceptive Use:
If Americans have a right to bear children, don’t they also have a right not to have children? It would be difficult to argue that there is a fundamental, constitutional right of privacy which encompasses a right to procreate but which doesn’t cover a right not to procreate. Christian Right attacks on contraception are thus also attacks on people’s privacy rights, as well as on their fundamental rights regarding whether or not they have children.
Sex, Consequences, and Contraception:
America’s Protestant Christian Right has no objections to contraception per se and certainly no objections to the principle of family planning. What they object to is the use of contraception in order to allow people to engage in extramarital sex without worrying about the possible consequences, including pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. This is completely consistent with not only Christian traditions, but also traditions in other religions.
Why, though, do they object to preventing some of the consequences of extramarital sex but not marital sex? Why is it okay to prevent pregnancy within marriage but not with couples who are not married? That’s a difficult question to answer, but it appears that it lies with the assumption of the essentially sinful nature of sexual acts. Traditional Christianity only permitted sex for the purpose of procreation; modern Christianity allows for sex having a purpose in marital harmony and as an expression of marital love.
Extramarital sex of course cannot legitimately partake of any of these goods, and is thus necessarily sinful. It’s okay for non-sinful marital sex to occur without visible consequences, but people engaging in sinful extramarital sex should not be allowed to go unpunished. Pregnancy and disease are personal consequences of sex which can serve as a form of punishment and therefore should not be prevented.
The Christian Right believes that there are already widespread negative social consequences of unrestrained extramarital sex — hedonism, loss of respect for marriage, and so forth. If there were stronger and more obvious personal consequences to extramarital sex, then maybe fewer people would engage in it and the social consequences would be reduced.
Emergency Contraception & Conscience: Christian Right Attacks on Contraceptives
Religious Objections to Emergency Contraception:
There is a growing movement of pharmacists who want the right to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control pills, especially for the purpose of emergency contraception (also known as Plan B or morning after pills) arguing that the pills may “terminate pregnancies” and they don’t want to be complicit in abortions. The problem is, though, that this requires a rhetorically useful but nevertheless dishonest change to the definition of “pregnancy.”
What is Contraception?:
Contraception is any means of preventing a pregnancy from occurring. Here, the focus is on oral contraceptives which prevent pregnancies by introducing synthetic hormones to a woman’s body, thereby preventing the release of natural hormones which cause ovaries to release eggs. Taken properly they have a high success rate and their introduction to America helped cause a widespread revolution in sexual mores and women’s social roles which the Christian Right hates to this day.
What is Emergency Contraception?:
Emergency contraceptives are large doses of standard oral contraceptives, taken after sexual intercourse has occurred. Sometimes called “morning after pills” or Plan B, they are most effective when taken 24 to 72 hours after intercourse. These pills are taken when physical contraceptive devices such as condoms fail or when a woman has been raped. They prevent ovulation entirely, prevent tubal transport of an ovum and/or sperm, prevent fertilization, or in some cases even prevent implantation.
Does Emergency Contraception Cause Abortions?:
Some argue that emergency contraception’s preventing a fertilized egg from implanting is a form of abortion. Medically, though, it’s not an abortion — an abortion only involves the removal of an implanted embryo because pregnancy doesn’t start until the egg is implanted. Where the implantation of a fertilized egg is prevented, it is because of the same changes to the uterine lining which are caused by breast feeding. So, if emergency contraception is an abortifacient, so is breast feeding.
Pharmacists and Prescriptions:
The primary job of a pharmacist is to provide accurate, safe, and timely dispensation of medications which have been prescribed by a doctor. It is the physician who best knows the patient and her needs and who has, upon that basis, decided what medication is in the patient’s best interests. If dispensing safe medication is the pharmacist’s primary job, then pharmacists who refuse to dispense such medication are specifically refusing to do what their job ultimately is.
Pharmacists and Patient Safety:
Pharmacists have a professional obligation to refuse to dispense that medication if, in their professional opinion, there are medical reasons to think that the patient may be harmed. An example this would be refusing to dispense medication that would have a deadly reaction with some other medicine that the doctor was unaware of the patient using. Pharmacists do not have a personal right to refuse to dispense medication because they have a religious opinion against its use.
Forcing Pharmacists to do their Jobs:
Should pharmacists be allowed to refuse to dispense emergency contraception? If so, why stop there — why not let them refuse to dispense any medication they object to, for whatever reason? Because this would make a mockery of being a pharmacist in the first place. If a person is unwilling to unable to dispense safe, effective medications that are accepted treatments according to current medical standards, then they should not be pharmacists in the first place.
Christian Right and Assaults on Reproductive Choices:
Many imagine that the Christian Right is only focused on abortion, but in fact they are opposed to the entire gamut of reproductive choices people enjoy today. Contraceptives, not just emergency contraception, are on their hit list. If pharmacists can deny patients access to legal, valid medications prescribed by their physicians, what will prevent them from being forced through community, social, and political pressure to refuse to provide the medications — even if they would like to?
Many pharmacies around the nation won’t even carry emergency contraceptives because they don’t want to deal with the controversy — right-wing religious groups have made contraception such a controversial issue that rape victims are being prevented from obtaining basic medical treatment. When asked, pharmacies typically say that there isn’t enough demand, but Planned Parenthood reports a dramatic upswing in demand for it. Women’s reproductive choices are being undermined by religious extremists.
Democracy, Conscientious Objection, and Social Consequences:
If a person’s religious objections to contraception are so great that they sincerely believe that dispensing it amounts to being complicit in an evil act, a sin against God, then they shouldn’t be forced to dispense it — and, by the same token, they shouldn’t be pharmacists, either. If a person has strong and sincere objections to performing a basic, routine aspect of their job, then they shouldn’t be in that job and they certainly shouldn’t demand that the world revolve around them by adjusting the parameters of the job just to suit them.
This is a fundamentally undemocratic demand. In a democracy, everyone is equally free and everyone has an equal say in the community’s public policies. What the pharmacists and their allies are demanding, however, is veto power over others’ liberty and over the implementation of public policy. They are standing in the doorway and preventing women from taking a legal action because their position is too much of a minority to achieve the same goals through the democratic process.
Ellen Goodman offered this nice summary of what the Christian Right and certain pharmacists are seeking: conscience without consequence. Refusing to do something because your conscience won’t allow it may be laudable in some cases, but it stops being laudable when you refuse to accept the consequences of your refusal. Society cannot function if people are able to ignore whatever rules, regulations, standards, or laws they want on the basis of “conscience” or religious desire.
Where will this process stop? Pharmacists in some places are also refusing to dispense other medication, like psychotropics and even pain relievers. Can bus drivers refuse to stop near fertility clinics? Can regular delivery drivers refuse to deliver things like office supplies to clinics? Individual moral conscience must be protected, but not to the extent that it prevents others in society from being free as well.
Here's what a teacher thought of this essay
A very long - overly long - coursework piece on abortion, with a strong focus on religion. It works well but would not be a perfect model for the average law course. It is more relevant to a combined law and morality module. It would have been interesting to read about worldwide trends. Where is adoption legal and illegal, and how does this impact society etc? 4 Stars.