Religious perspectives on abortion

Christianity

Christians have always taken a strong view against abortion, based on their belief that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. While some have suggested that Christianity used to be more accepting of abortion, this view is mistaken. The historical debate did not revolve around whether abortion was right or wrong, but rather the degree of wrongdoing and how the Church should respond to those involved. It is in this context that debates about “ensolument” and “quickening” should be seen. It should be remembered that the Christian teaching on abortion was not dependent on the “soul” being present in the child.

Early Christian texts and scholars condemn direct abortion: e.g. the Didache, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Saint Basil. The highly influential theologian, St. Augustine, while affirming Aristotle’s idea that ensoulment only occurred sometime after conception (and so regarding late abortion as a more serious act of wrongdoing), still maintained the condemnation of all abortion at any time from conception onward. St. Thomas Aquinas, probably the single greatest theologian in Christian history, came to a similar conclusion.

Nowadays abortion is opposed entirely by the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, and most Evangelical groups. Some Anglicans make exceptions in “hard cases”, while small groups within Anglicanism are entirely pro-abortion. There are pro-abortion minorities within most Christian groups, though their theological arguments are in contradiction with the Christian teaching that each child in the womb is known and loved by God.

*For the Christian and Jewish perspectives, an excellent in-depth guide is the book “The Soul of the Embryo” by Professor David Jones, a leading Christian scholar.

Judaism

In Judaism, views on abortion draw primarily upon the legal and ethical teachings of the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, the case-by-case decisions of responsa, and other rabbinic literature. In the modern period, moreover, Jewish thinking on abortion has responded both to liberal understandings of personal autonomy as well as Christian opposition to abortion. Generally speaking, orthodox Jews oppose abortion, with few health-related exceptions, and reform and conservative Jews tend to allow greater latitude. There are rulings that often appear conflicting on the matter. The Talmud states that a fetus is not legally a person until it is delivered. The Torah contains the law that “when men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results but no other misfortune, the one responsible shall be fined…but if other misfortune ensues, the penalty shall be life (nefesh) for life (nefesh).” (Ex.21:22-25); causing an abortion on an unwilling woman is thus a crime, but not because the fetus is considered a person.

The BBC religion website states accurately that “Judaism does not forbid abortion, but it does not permit abortion on demand. Abortion is only permitted for serious reasons. Judaism expects every case [related to abortion] to be considered on its own merits and the decision to be taken after consultation with a rabbi competent to give advice on such matters.”

Buddhism

“There is no single Buddhist view concerning abortion. Traditional sources, such as the Buddhist monastic code, hold that life begins at conception and that abortion, which would then involve the deliberate destruction of life, should be rejected. Many Buddhists also subscribe to this view. Complicating the issue is the Buddhist belief that “life is a continuum with no discernible starting point”. The Dalai Lama has said that abortion is “negative,” but there are exceptions. He said, “I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance.”

Inducing or otherwise causing an abortion is regarded as a serious matter in the monastic rules followed by certain Buddhist monks; monks can be expelled for assisting a woman in procuring an abortion. Traditionally, Buddhism has not recognised a distinction between early- and late-term abortion, although some modern Buddhists do make such a distinction, and modern Buddhist teachers from many traditions – and abortion laws in many Buddhist countries – recognize a threat to the life or physical health of the mother as an acceptable justification for abortion as a practical matter, though it may still be seen as bringing “bad karma”.

Hinduism

Classical Hindu texts strongly condemn abortion. As a helpful item on the BBC website states, “When considering abortion, the Hindu way is to choose the action that will do least harm to all involved: the mother and father, the foetus and society.” The BBC goes on to state, “In practice, however, abortion is practiced in Hindu culture in India, because the religious ban on abortion is sometimes overruled by the cultural preference for sons. This can lead to abortion to prevent the birth of girl babies, which is called ‘female foeticide’.” Hindu scholars and women’s rights advocates have supported bans on sex-selective abortions. Some Hindus support abortion in cases where the mother’s life is at imminent risk or when the fetus has a life threatening developmental anomaly.

Some Hindu theologians and Brahma Kumaris believe personhood begins at three months and develops through to five months of gestation, possibly implying permitting abortion up to the third month and considering any abortion past the third month to be destruction of the soul’s current incarnate body.

Islam

Although there are different opinions among Islamic scholars about when life begins and when abortion is permissible, most agree that the termination of a pregnancy after 120 days – the point at which, in Islam, a fetus is thought to become a living soul – is not permissible. Several Islamic thinkers contend that in cases prior to four months of gestation, abortion should be permissible only in instances in which the mother’s life is in danger or in cases of rape.

Sikhism

Although the Sikh code of conduct does not deal directly with abortion (or indeed many other bioethical issues), it is generally forbidden in Sikhism because it is said to interfere with the creative work of God. Despite this theoretical viewpoint, abortion is not uncommon among the Sikh community in India, not least because of wider cultural factors.


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