Abortion and religion

“Being pro-life is just a religious view”

“Religious views shouldn’t be imposed on others”

Does Christianity prohibit abortion?

Does Judaism prohibit abortion?

Does Islam prohibit abortion?

Does Hinduism prohibit abortion?

Does Sikhism prohibit abortion?

Does Buddhism prohibit abortion?

Do any Biblical passages support abortion?

“Being pro-life is just a religious view”

As a straightforward empirical question, this is obviously false. US polling suggests 23% of religiously unaffiliated Americans still think that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases – a minority, but a significant one. This is actually a higher proportion than for Jews and Buddhists in the US. And of course, many more will think that abortion is wrong but should be legal, and that abortion should sometimes be illegal. But are these just formerly religious people who have accidentally held onto their religious beliefs, or might they have a non-religious basis for their beliefs?

I hope to have shown by this point that there are reasons for opposing abortion which are not based on religious premises – most of the arguments, in fact (see ‘Why pro-life?’ and ‘Are there other arguments for the pro-life position?’). Fortunately, killing is widely held to be wrong by religious and non-religious people alike. So the question is: is a foetus the kind of thing that it is wrong to kill? It is clear that there are reasons for answering ‘yes’ which don’t rely on any religious premises (see the previously mentioned posts).

The traditional secular answer is that killing any living human being is wrong. And this is exactly why the prohibitions on abortion in the 19th century were driven primarily by doctors (see Jones and Keown), based on recent embryological developments. The Bible, of course, does not mention fertilisation – it was not even known about when the Bible was written. In light of the scientific developments in the 19th century, and their relative absence in Biblical times, it is difficult to see how ‘life begins at fertilisation’ could be a fundamentally religious conviction. In fact, the historical evidence is clear that churches began to adopt this view precisely because science had demonstrated it. And doctors adopted it at the same time too, regardless of their religious convictions.

The Hippocratic Oath forbade abortion, though likely primarily out of concern for the woman, for whom abortion would be extremely dangerous. But in the wake of the Second World War, concern for human life from conception was evident among doctors regardless of religion: in 1947 the British Medical Association, in a statement on war crimes, maintained that ‘the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath cannot change and can be reaffirmed by the profession. It enjoins… The duty of curing, the greatest crime being co-operation in the destruction of life by murder, suicide and abortion.’ The next year, the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Geneva vowed to ‘maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception’. In 1966, the year before abortion was legalised in the UK, and by which time church attendance was a small minority of the UK population, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists published a report unanimously approved by their Council. This vehemently opposed the legalisation of abortion, and decisively disproved false claims that many women were dying from illegal abortions, and that these women would be saved by legalising abortion. Secular medicine has always been a key driving force for the pro-life view, especially since the embryological developments of recent centuries. It is clear that one need not be religious to be pro-life.

For my own part, my religious beliefs and my beliefs on abortion came entirely independently. The UK church is for the most part either silent or pro-choice, and I was not raised in a pro-life household or church. I became convinced of the pro-life view by my experience at medical school, understanding the arguments, seeing the reality of life in the womb, seeing the reality of abortion, and understanding the impact of abortion on women.

“Religious views should not be imposed on others”

As I have suggested in the previous post, the pro-life view is not necessarily a religious view. But of course, for many people, it is grounded in certain religious beliefs. This raises two questions: are they accurate interpretations of those religious traditions, and should those views have an impact on public policy?

Although religious scriptures or traditions do not talk about fertilisation (before recent times), they do talk about life prior to birth, generally affirming its value, and the wrongness of taking that life. They sometimes talk about this life being valuable from ‘conception’ – the beginning of that life. So although they do not scientifically identify the beginning of life, they do often say that taking that life is wrong from the moment it has begun – and science has now shown when it begins. In that sense, even those who claim a religious view for their pro-life belief are still basing their views mostly on a scientific discovery – the beginning of life at fertilisation.

But suppose it were primarily or entirely a religious conviction. Should this matter? Well, it clearly at least matters for people with those religious beliefs. The large majority of the global population – perhaps a large proportion of people reading this – claim some sort of mainstream religious faith. For those millions – indeed, billions – of people, religious arguments will have some force. It would be unreasonable and exclusionary to assume that their fundamental convictions should be completely ignored, and that those convictions could never affect their moral views or lives.

It also matters because even non-religious people cannot simply assume that they are right, and that there is no chance they are wrong. If the permissibility of abortion depends on religions being false, that adds a considerable burden of proof to the defender of abortion. Are they entitled to make that assumption without a good argument? I doubt it. If Christianity, for example, entails the pro-life position, and there is a reasonable chance Christianity is true, then there is (logically) a reasonable chance that the pro-life position is true. If there are no good arguments against Christianity, then on what basis can its falsehood be assumed when coming to moral judgments?

Of course, the bigger question here is not whether religion should affect some people’s moral views, but whether it should affect public policy. Should religious views affect the lives of others? This is where some people become very nervous – isn’t that essentially a theocracy?

I think we can have a more nuanced, mature position than this. In a pluralist society, especially a pluralist democracy, everyone has a say – that is the whole point. Everyone will have basic foundational worldviews which impact their moral views. Some secular people will have an atheistic worldview where morality is based on autonomy and self-fulfilment. Other secular people will have an atheistic worldview where morality is based on flourishing relationships. Others will be agnostic, or have eclectic religious views, and so on. No one comes from an entirely neutral, uncontroversial worldview. Yet all our views must have some weight in a pluralistic democracy, and we must have some laws.

But why should secular people be able to force their views about the importance of, say, autonomy or self-fulfilment, on society (by creating legal systems based on these ideals)? Or their views on flourishing relationships? These are just as controversial, and non-neutral. The reason is presumably that, in a democracy, every view counts – complete neutrality is impossible (even a society with no laws at all would clearly be biased towards anarchists). But then the views of religious people count as well. So to exclude religious views from having any impact on public policy is essentially to bias public policy towards non-religious people, and this is wrong. In many countries, this would exclude the overwhelming majority of people from political participation.

Another reason to include religious considerations in public policy is, again, because of the possibility that they are correct – and it is doubtful whether the state is entitled to simply assume that they are not. There are, of course, endless debates about how the state should respond to claims which are possible but uncertain – such as the likelihood of a future invasion. One way of doing so is to make certain concessions to religious beliefs in proportion with the likelihood that that belief is true. This is of course not easy when it comes to religion – where there is considerable disagreement about how probable religious claims are. But to give up straight away and make no concessions at all does not seem a proportionate response either – and again, biases society towards an atheistic vision. In the same way that no one can simply assume without argument that religions are all false, and the large majority of the world is mistaken, nor can a state rationally do so.

A final reason to include religious considerations in public policy is because some of them have been shown to have considerable merit, morally. Indeed, arguably, in many ways, secularists want to retain certain Judaeo-Christian moral claims in public policy. For example, the prohibition on infanticide is a distinctly Christian innovation. But no one thinks we should abandon that prohibition because it has religious roots – even when leading secular bioethicists argue that we should abandon it. Likewise, Christianity has largely been responsible for modern conceptions of human equality and human rights (see Moyn, Spencer, Dickson, and especially Holland). If we had to abandon Christian premises for our public policy, we would likely end up discarding the prohibition on infanticide, and probably far more besides.

Does Christianity prohibit abortion?

See my handout.

Does Judaism prohibit abortion?

See my handout, along with helpful summaries here and here.

Does Islam prohibit abortion?

Although there is some disagreement between Islamic schools regarding the details on abortion, there is broad agreement on the general principles. These are that abortion is completely impermissible after ensoulment (except if the mother’s life is at risk), and permissible only in exceptional circumstances prior to ensoulment There is slight disagreement about what constitutes exceptional circumstances – but it is clear that even before ensoulment abortion is by default impermissible and these exceptional circumstances are rare.

Likewise, there is some disagreement on when ensoulment occurs: some say 40 days, some say 120 days. Others argue that these estimates were based on the science of the time, so that the correct modern interpretation is to follow the science and assume ensoulment at conception.

Hence, although Islam has traditionally not been opposed to all abortion, it is clearly opposed to the overwhelming majority of abortions. A helpful overview is given in the Journal of the British Islamic Medical Association.

Does Hinduism prohibit abortion?

Hinduism generally regards abortion as being impermissible except where the mother’s life is at risk. A helpful overview is available here.

Does Sikhism prohibit abortion?

Sikhism generally regards abortion as being impermissible and defines life as beginning at conception. A helpful overview is available here.

Does Buddhism prohibit abortion?

Buddhism appears to treat abortion on a case-by-case basis, but in general abortion is viewed negatively. The Dalai Lama has said, for example, that ‘Of course, abortion, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is an act of killing and is negative, generally speaking. But it depends on the circumstances. If the unborn child will be retarded or if the birth will create serious problems for the parent, these are cases where there can be an exception. I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance.’

The first precept of Buddhism is not to kill in general. It is somewhat difficult to reconcile this view with permitting abortion in certain circumstances (except where the mother’s life is at risk). Either way, it is clear that traditional Buddhist teaching is generally against abortion. There is a helpful overview here.

Do any Biblical passages support abortion?

It is sometimes claimed that some Biblical passages support abortion by supporting a lower moral status for the foetus. Those passages include Genesis 2:7; Exodus 21; and Numbers 5.

I respond in full to these claims in my paper published in Christian Bioethics, ‘Why Biblical arguments for abortion fail’, available with my other academic papers here: https://calumsblog.com/academic-papers/

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