a publication of BC's Pro-Choice Action Network
Autumn 2001 Issue
Religion & Abortion
Table of Contents
Religion and Abortion
U.S. /International News:
Abortion and Religion - Introduction
All “Abortion and Religion” articles by Joyce Arthur
Summary: The claims that embyros are persons with rights, and that women should be forced to have babies, are both based on narrow, sectarian religious beliefs. The anti-choice movement consists almost entirely of fundamentalist Protestant Christians or devout Roman Catholics who follow the Pope. These people wish to impose their private religious beliefs about abortion on the rest of us by law. By doing so, they deny and violate everyone's freedom of religion. Ironically, although the Bible and religious doctrines are used to justify anti-abortionism and the oppression of women, the Bible itself is pro-choice, and other religious interpretations strongly support women's freedom to choose.
In this issue, we examine in more depth the above statements, in an effort to develop a new framework for abortion rights. Women's right to choose abortion is not just a health issue, a moral issue, or a privacy issue. It is all these things, of course, but it is also a right that should be guaranteed based on our constitutional freedom of religion and conscience.
Abortion rights should be guaranteed
based on our constitutional freedom of religion and conscience.
Section 2, Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:
2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
a) freedom of conscience and religion;
b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including
freedom of the press and other media of communication;
c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
d) freedom of association.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Religious Basis of Anti-Choice Movement
The resistance to abortion by the anti-choice movement is in many ways, a uniquely American phenomenon that has bubbled over into Canada. Most anti-choice activities, especially the violence, don't happen much in other parts of the world, which proves that it doesn't have to be like this. There are many countries in the world where abortion is not a hot topic, where abortion is considered to be a normal and unremarkable part of women's health care. For example, a woman once contacted us regarding a textbook she was writing for Japanese university students on North American culture. She asked us for some pictures of the abortion conflict, such as anti-choice protesters parading around with their offensive signs. She said that in Japan, where abortion is freely available on demand, young people are amazed to learn that the abortion issue is so contentious in North America. They don't understand what the big deal is.
Indeed, what is the big deal? Why is the United States, home of the original women's liberation movement, cursed with such massive resistance to legal abortion?
One of the things that sets America apart from many other nations is the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion. For example, most European countries have state churches, and citizens must pay taxes to the church whether they attend or not. But in America, the separation of state and church has actually helped religion to grow and diversify. The United States today is one of the most religious countries in the world, second only to Muslim theocracies like Iran or Afghanistan. About 40% of Americans call themselves born-again Christians. More than 20% are Catholics.
One of the most organized groups against abortion is the Roman Catholic church. Even though most Catholics in North America are actually quite liberal and pro-choice, the Pope and the church hierarchy hold well-known anti-abortion and anti-contraceptive views. And because of American tolerance for organized religion, the Vatican manages to wield a surprising amount of power and influence over American politics and culture. In fact, the Catholic Church is a major player in the anti-abortion movement in North America. The Vatican has intervened here because it lost the battle against legal abortion in Europe, and it sees the United States, the most powerful country in the world, as its last hope of imposing its anti-abortion views globally. Towards that end, the Catholic Church has established a friendly working relationship with the other main enemy of abortion rights in America—the Christian right, made up of evangelical Protestants.
It's no secret that the major opposition to abortion comes from conservative religious groups. Almost all anti-choice adherents are fundamentalist Protestants or devout Catholics who follow the Pope. If there's one common denominator to protests outside abortion clinics, it's picketers engaging in overt religious activity, such as praying, preaching, singing hymns, or counting rosary beads. If you read anti-abortion literature that is not written for a secular audience, it is completely suffused with religious language. Anti-choice counselling centres for pregnant women are Christian-run, and they achieve their best success when they turn women into born-again Christians.
 The few atheists, agnostics, or liberal theists who are anti-choice are invariably male and misogynistic. They tend to rely on abstract moral principles and are ignorant of the realities of women's lives.
Religious Views On the Fetus
In order for anti-choicers to establish their claim that abortion is murder, they must show that fetuses are human beings deserving of protection. But when we speculate about what this means, we immediately confront unanswerable religious questions, such as:
- Does life begin at conception?
- Is a fertilized egg a complete and separate human being specially created by God?
- Is destruction of a fertilized egg therefore an act of murder?
- Do we have eternal souls that inhabit our physical bodies temporarily?
- Does God create a brand new soul every time a human egg and sperm unite?
- When our physical bodies die, do our souls go to heaven (or hell) forever?
These questions, and the anti-abortion answers to them, spring from a narrow interpretation of the Christian faith. They contradict the religious beliefs of many other Christians, most adherents of other religions, all atheists, and virtually all agnostics. (Cote, Website)
For example, here are some conflicting religious beliefs about the status of the fetus:
- Conservative Christians tend to believe that God creates a brand new soul instantaneously and infuses it into every uniting sperm and egg.
- Liberal Christians tend to believe that the status of the fetus is decided by the God-given moral agency and free will of the pregnant woman.
- The Judaic Old Testament (Genesis 2:7) states that life begins at first breath, but babies are not valued until they are a month old (Numbers 3:40; Leviticus 27:6).
- The Jewish Talmud states that life begins at birth.
- The Moslem Koran (23.12-14 and 15.26-29) indirectly states that life begins at first breath.
- Eastern cultures hold that each being is a pre-existing soul that enters a series of physical bodies. Most eastern religions respect the fetus and forbid abortion for “selfish” reasons, but accord the woman’s life more value.
- Atheists say there is no soul at all, and that we are just physical bodies that acquire personhood and self-consciousness gradually as a product of the brain.
- Agnostics say nobody knows the answers to these philosophical questions.
The full human personhood of the embryo from the moment of conception is therefore a theological assumption that cannot be proved. Not only that, it is the sectarian belief of a specific group of Christians. It is not even a Christian belief historically. The Roman Catholic Church did not declare early abortion a mortal sin until 1869, and that was due more to papal authority than to agreement among Catholic theologians about fetal personhood. (Cote, Website)
Nobody can be absolutely certain that they are right and everyone else is wrong. But differing beliefs and uncertainties don't matter to fundamentalist Christians, who tend to believe that non-Christians do not deserve the right to practice their own religions or philosophies. Even other Christians who do not hold the "correct" beliefs are dismissed as not being "true" Christians. This same religious intolerance underpins the anti-choice mindset, since anti-abortionists want to make abortion illegal and inaccessible for all, regardless of differing personal beliefs.
It is instructive to note that the Bible says nothing against abortion. It does say, in several different verses, that it's better to die in the womb than live an unhappy or wicked life. That's pro-choice, basically. So it's important to remember that anti-abortionists who spout the Bible as their justification for being "pro-life" are just using that as a cover. They either think no one will notice what the Bible really says, or more likely, they don't even know themselves.
Actually, the opposition to abortion comes primarily from religious justifications for oppressing women (more on this later). There is really only one fetus-related reason for anti-abortionism, and it’s a Christian doctrine found outside the Bible. It sheds light on an apparent glaring contradiction in the anti-choice position. Although anti-abortionists call themselves "pro-life" and claim to want to save babies, they do little or nothing to help children once they're born. For example, they want to force poor women to have babies, but they also want to cut off their welfare. Although this appears quite nonsensical to us, it's logically consistent with their religious beliefs. You see, Christian doctrine says that all human souls from conception onwards are tainted with "Original Sin," brought about by Adam and Eve's fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. Original Sin can only be erased by baptism. In the words of John Calvin, the 17th century Protestant theologian, "Even infants bring their condemnation with them from the mother's womb…their whole nature is…a seed of sin…and odious and abominable to God." And the 4th century Catholic theologian St. Augustine said, "Do not believe, or say, or teach, that the unbaptized infant can be forgiven original sin—not if you wish to be a Catholic."
This doctrine means that babies must be born and baptized in order for them to have a chance at salvation, so they can go to heaven later when they die. But if a fetus is aborted, or miscarried, it will never, ever have a chance to be saved. Clearly then, anti-abortionists must fanatically defend fetuses at all costs, but they don't have to be concerned with the already-born. Because it doesn't matter if people are poor or suffering, or what the conditions of their lives are like. The only thing that matters is that they get born, so they will have a chance at eternal salvation.
You might wonder what happens to the souls of aborted fetuses, according to Christian doctrine. Both St. Augustine and the Bible seem to indicate that they go straight to hell—the Bible stresses faith and belief as the only way to get saved. Other Christians concocted an "age of accountability" doctrine that allows innocent infants and children to go to heaven, even though there's no Biblical basis for such a thing. But the Catholic Church was the most inventive—they dreamed up Limbo, a kind of safety net for the souls of stillborn babies and aborted fetuses. Apparently God used Limbo as a temporary holding facility for these souls until he decided what to do with them. But in 1994, the Catholic Church quietly abolished Limbo. They didn't even replace it with anything, so the fate of aborted fetus souls is now anyone's guess.
Another likely reason the Catholic Church is against abortion is because they need to maximize their membership levels to maintain their worldly influence and wealth. In contrast, evangelical Protestants are more occupied with proselytizing. You've probably experienced Jehovah's Witnesses knocking on your door, walked past many sidewalk preachers, and read about the countless missionaries that go to developing countries in their quest to "save the world". The reason these Christians are compelled to intrude onto other peoples' privacy is because the Bible says they must go out and preach the gospel to everyone. Apparently, the goal is to expose everyone in the world to Christianity, because once that magical moment is finally achieved, Jesus will come down from heaven on a cloud of glory to put an end to this wicked world and send everyone who rejected him off to hell. So, evangelical Protestants want to convert as many people as possible, regardless of the cost in human misery, because their secret rallying cry is "More souls for Jesus!" Of course, when the goal is to maximize the number of saved souls, aborting fetuses is obviously a terrible and criminal waste. Not only does abortion deprive them of an eternity in heaven, it also reduces the number of potential followers for Jesus.
Based on the above, here’s a summary list of the main religious assumptions that shape the views of anti-choicers about the fetus (Cote, Website):
- Every human being is born inherently evil, because of the stain of Original Sin (caused by Adam and Eve's fall from grace in the Garden of Eden).
- A human being cannot enter heaven unless the Original Sin has been removed through baptism.
- A human being has only one chance at life, and then goes to heaven or hell forever based on their religious beliefs or activities while here on Earth.
- Life on earth has only one purpose—it’s a ticket to heaven.
- Because fertilized eggs have souls, an abortion risks the salvation of that soul—at worst, dooming it to an eternity in hell.
Most people do not share these specific religious beliefs—however, all of us have our own religious or philosophical beliefs of one sort or another. This brings us to the logical flip side of the idea that laws against abortion are an imposition of minority religious beliefs on everyone. Since abortion is such a personal decision, this means that all women who have abortions are choosing to do so based in part on their religious or philosophical beliefs. Indeed, counsellors at abortion clinics frequently help a woman to reconcile her decision with her religious beliefs and her relationship with God. Some patients and their families even ask clinic staff to pray with them. Therefore, making a decision to have an abortion is not simply a matter of conscience—it's often an expression of women's personal religious beliefs, and needs to be constitutionally protected as such.
Using Freedom of Religion in the Courtroom
Protecting the right to choose based on religious freedom clauses in our constitution has never really been tried in the courts. In the Supreme Court's 1988 Morgentaler decision that threw out Canada's abortion law, one of the justices, Bertha Wilson, found that the Criminal Code provisions governing abortion violated women's freedom of conscience, as guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, section 2a, which reads "freedom of conscience and religion". However, she characterized the abortion decision as grounded in a personal morality independent of religion, although still protected by section 2a. The other justices found the right to abortion primarily in section 7's clause, "security of the person".
In the United States, abortion rights are founded on a constitutionally-derived right to privacy, which is how the pro-choice lawyers chose to argue the case in Roe v. Wade in 1973. There is no explicit right to privacy in the U.S. constitution, but the 9th Amendment allows other rights not mentioned in the Constitution to be protected too. The right to privacy was enshrined as a constitutional right in two 1960’s court decisions that legalized birth control, and these precedents made the Roe v. Wade ruling possible.
Because abortion rights have already been legally justified based on these other constitutional rights, not freedom of religion, it could make it difficult to apply the religious freedom clause in any later case. The precedents have already been set. But as long as the right to choose is adequately protected by the Canadian right to “security of the person” and the U.S. “right to privacy,” the use of the religious freedom clause may be redundant.
Unfortunately, the Roe v. Wade decision has led to onerous restrictions on abortion in the U.S. Many judges are willing to limit the right to privacy, because it is so new and not thought to be as fundamental as other rights. In fact, the right to religious freedom is the first and most significant right in the Bill of Rights and has been guaranteed to American citizens for over 200 years. The lower status of the right to privacy seriously jeopardizes abortion rights in the United States.
In Canada we are luckier, because the lack of any law against abortion makes it hard for the anti-choice to put any restrictions in place—there’s nothing to build from. Also, women’s equality rights are enshrined in our constitution, unlike in the United States, and Canadian judges have shown great reluctance to give any rights to fetuses because they understand it would impinge on the well-established rights of women.
Nevertheless, we invite lawyers to use the arguments presented in this issue and apply them in future court cases wherever appropriate, especially when anti-choicers cite religious reasons to bolster their case. This happened in the May/June 2000 trial of two anti-abortion protesters who violated the bubble zone around Everywoman’s Health Centre in Vancouver. One of the defence lawyers argued that the reference to the "supremacy of God" in the preamble to Canada's constitution is binding on judges, and Canada's justice system must be subject to God's laws and Biblical authority (Arthur, 2000). The accused were of course unsuccessful in establishing that implausible claim, but had they done so, one of them hoped to cement his case by proving the Bible is against abortion, and therefore, abortion must be made illegal in Canada (Poley, 1999).
A much more common example is when anti-choice protesters argue in court that their religious beliefs about the immorality of abortion compelled them to break the law. They say that “God’s law is higher than man’s law”. But this invites the counter-argument that since abortion is supposedly wrong and illicit on religious grounds, any laws restricting abortion would have their source in religious doctrine, rendering them unconstitutional. Put another way, citing religious justifications to protest against abortion can only lead to failure in the courtroom, because judges are obligated to prevent a minority from imposing its beliefs on us all. Abortion rights lawyers could capitalize on anti-choicers’ tendency to spout their religious views in the courtroom by arguing that these views, if accepted as a legitimate defense in a court of law, would negate everyone else’s freedom of religion.
Religion and Patriarchy
Both religion and patriarchy have prehistoric roots. What was the relationship between these two ancient human practices? As food for thought, consider the following hypothesis.
Prehistorically, women probably had more power and higher status living in hunting and gathering tribes than within ancient city-states. The introduction of agriculture fostered various developments that probably led to the oppression of women.
Higher populations were living in permanent communities with greater resources, and this required many new rules to manage a complex society. Further, the concepts of private property and inheritance originated when a community produced more than it needed for its own survival, a phenomenon that accompanied the invention of agriculture. This brought about a fundamental change in the use of resources—instead of the communal sharing typical of hunter/ gatherer tribes, individuals competed for resources, with land ownership becoming the primary mark of wealth and power. Also, men began investing long-term, substantial resources in the specific children borne by their wives, not in all children of the tribe.
The key to the origin of patriarchy probably lies in the biological need for people to invest in their own children. Evolutionarily speaking, individuals are compelled to spread their genes by reproducing. Animals do not generally take care of young that are not their own, since this would turn them into evolutionary dead-ends. In the case of humans, women always know that the children they bear are related to them, but men can never know for sure who their genetic offspring are, which can cause huge anxiety for them. This male dilemma matters little to women, since women’s biological priority is to find someone to help provide for their children, and it doesn’t have to be the father. In fact, female duplicity in this regard has always been common—overall, nine percent of children are raised by men who only think they are the fathers (Boster, 1997).
In ancient human societies, the obvious and most practical way to ensure that men invested in their own children was to dictate and restrict women’s sexual behaviour. For example, adultery became a far worse crime for women than for men. Of course, this control of women was never consciously justified on biological grounds—but it had to be justified somehow. The most convenient and effective social explanation was this: Women’s subjugation had to be enforced because women were inferior to men and their sexuality was a source of evil temptation that corrupted men.
How could such beliefs be justified and enforced? In a word, religion. Women’s confinement to the role of faithful wife and mother was God-ordained by default, because religion permeated early societies— it dictated everything about people’s lives. Divine laws and religious mythmaking fulfilled patriarchal needs by providing moral justification, strength, and endurance to beliefs about woman’s proper place. These beliefs became enshrined in the sacred books of organized religion, such as the Judaic Old Testament.
Woman's Place In the Christian Bedroom
Informed pro-choicers have always understood that the anti-abortion movement is not about saving babies—it's about putting women back in their place. And in fact, Biblical and religious attitudes towards women are the real key to anti-abortionism. The role and nature of women and their sexuality according to the anti-choice, explain the immorality of abortion.
Protestant writer John Swomley points out that the "pro-life" position is really a pro-fetus position, while the pro-choice position is really pro-woman. He says: "Those who take the pro-fetus position define the woman in relation to the fetus. They assert the rights of the fetus over the right of the woman to be a moral agent or decision maker with respect to her life, health, and family security." (Swomley, 1992)
Historically, the Catholic Church was concerned less about the life of the fetus, than about the sin of sexuality when it interfered with procreation, as both contraception and abortion do. In fact, the Catholic Church says that sex without the intent to procreate is a sin, even for married couples. Protestant fundamentalism, too, is permeated with a puritanical view of sex, complete with a double standard of sexual behaviour for men and women. In the Old Testament, women's sexuality is "unclean" and treacherous, and is bound by many strict regulations. In the New Testament, the characters of the two Mary's epitomize the Christian models of women's sexuality—Mary the virgin mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene the sinner (alleged to be a prostitute), who repented and was saved by Jesus. The message is clear: a woman should be chaste and virginal, and when she is not, she must repent or be punished. The only acceptable sexual activity allowed for women is procreative sex in the marriage bed. (If she doesn't initiate that sex and doesn't enjoy it too much, so much the better.)
Although sexual pleasure in the Judaic Old Testament is depicted as relatively normal and expected (albeit often evil and depraved), by the time we reach the Christian New Testament, Jesus is praising eunuchs, and Paul (writer of many of the New Testament letters) is preaching that sex should be avoided completely. However, Paul says if one's self control is tempted by Satan, it is "better to marry than to burn " (1 Corinthians 7:9). Once married, a woman lives under her husband's authority and her duty is to bear children. This brings to mind a key term of the Religious Right—"pro-family." The word "family," however, is always defined as a patriarchal family. Women cannot hold power over men according to Paul and as per Catholic doctrine—which is why the Pope refuses to ordain women. This low view of women, with its insistence that motherhood is the only proper role for women, has its roots in ancient patriarchy justified through religious laws.
Of course, such religious doctrines do very little to stop sexual activity, but they do contribute significantly to guilt and hypocrisy. Religious women actually have higher rates of unintended pregnancy than non-religious women, and they have a more difficult time emotionally in justifying sex for pleasure and abortion.
Theologian Rosemary Reuther has pointed out: "It is not accidental that Catholic countries where both contraception and abortion are discouraged have higher abortion rates than countries where both are legal but where contraception is encouraged. It is also well known that Catholics in the United States have a higher proportion of abortions than Protestants and Jews. Why? Quite simply the combination of an anti-contraception culture, combined with hostility toward female sexuality and self-determination promotes the conditions of unchosen pregnancy and hence recourse to abortion as the unchosen but forced solution." (as cited in Swomley, 1992)
Abortion clinic counsellors have noticed that women who have the hardest time with their abortion decisions are often the most religious. These women may feel tremendous guilt and shame, because their religion teaches them that abortion is murder, that good girls don't have sex, and that women who have abortions are deviant (since motherhood is woman's natural, desired state). Such guilt is often reinforced and prolonged by the negative reactions of her religious family and community—even more so if the woman feels too ashamed and afraid to tell anyone and so bears the stigma alone. Further, post-abortion Christian counselling agencies frequently use guilt-instilling techniques to "heal" post-abortive women—by making them admit they did a terrible thing by murdering their baby, putting them through a traumatic grief process, and then helping them seek God's forgiveness. (Safe Haven Ministries, Project Rachel, Victims of Choice, and others) Needless to say, some women may never recover from this psychological ordeal.
Numerous studies have shown that the vast majority of women do not suffer severe or long-lasting psycho-logical trauma after having abortions (Arthur, 1997) But women who do suffer serious anguish or guilt from having abortions tend to have something in common: low self-esteem or other psychological problems before the abortion. Significantly, devout Catholic women in one study were found to exhibit more post-abortion distress than other women, and this was attributed to their lower overall self-esteem (Brody, 1997). Considering the narrow and subservient role accorded to women by conservative church doctrines, is it surprising that devoutly religious women may have self-esteem problems?
If it's true that anti-abortion beliefs themselves are largely responsible for fostering most post-abortion trauma because of the religiously-based stigma, shame, and guilt inflicted onto women, it is hypocritical for anti-choicers to promote this syndrome as a reason to make abortion illegal (along with irresponsible claims that abortion is dangerous or causes breast cancer). It shows their indifference to the psychological harm they do to women—their supreme moral imperative is to make all women become mothers, no matter how difficult the lives of the resulting family might be.
 A 1995 study showed that one in five women who have abortions identify themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians (Alan Guttmacher Institute. Abortion Common Among All Women (www.agi-usa.org/pubs/archives/prabort2.html)
Woman's Place in the Bible
Although Christian feminists try to interpret the Bible in a way that empowers women, the Bible taken literally is not kind to women.
Positive female role models in the Bible are usually there only to demonstrate their obedience, selflessness, and religious devotion. Typically, women are something to be feared, punished, and oppressed. The only feminist in the Bible, Queen Vashti, is dethroned for disobeying her king and replaced with a virgin after the king holds a Best Virgin Contest (Esther 1 and 2).
Other than "virgin", the most common Biblical labels for women are "whore" and "harlot." Women are described as having evil, even satanic powers of allurement. In the Old Testament, women are possessions: fathers own them, sell them into bondage, even sacrifice them. Rape is sanctioned during wartime and in other contexts. Women are subject to virginity "bedchecks" as brides, and male jealousy fits and no-notice divorce as wives (Gaylor, 1993).
There are more than 200 Bible verses that specifically belittle and demean women (Gaylor, 1981; and Green, 1979). During the Inquisition, one Bible verse alone, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18), was responsible for the death of tens of thousands of women—possibly millions.
Paul, writer of many New Testament letters, and the most influential shaper of Christianity, was quite clear that women were the “weaker vessel.” Most telling of all is Paul's passage in I Timothy 2, where he explains that women have a sinful and inferior nature because Eve, not Adam, was deceived by the devil in the Garden of Eden. Because Eve was "weak" and succumbed to temptation by eating a forbidden fruit, she brought sin and death into the world. As punishment, Paul dictates that women must dress modestly, must not speak in church, must not teach men, and must not have any authority over them, but he allows that women can be "saved through bearing children"—provided they remain faithful, holy, and modest.
It was God, however, who dictated the first punishment. Women lost their rights and independence by the third chapter of Genesis, where motherhood became a God-inflicted curse: "I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." (Genesis 3:16)
The myth of the fall of Adam and Eve has been used to oppress and punish women since the beginning of Christianity. In the 1st century, the early church father Tertullian wrote: "Each of you women is an Eve... You are the gate of Hell, you are the temptress of the forbidden tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law." In the 16th century, Martin Luther decreed: "If a woman grows weary and at last dies from childbearing, it matters not. Let her die from bearing, she is there to do it." Even though anesthesia began to be used in 1846, it was not routinely administered to women in childbirth for almost 40 years, because many doctors followed the Biblical teaching that women must suffer in childbirth. (Gaylor, 1981 and 1993; Green, 1979)
Eve's Ascent to Grace
The Adam and Eve myth can more justly be interpreted in a way that empowers and validates women. It was Eve, not Adam, who desired knowledge and so picked the fruit from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil". She appreciated the beauty of the tree, saw that its fruit looked delicious, and wanted the wisdom she believed the tree would give her (Genesis 3:6). It was Eve's courage and initiative—her reaching out for beauty, truth, and independence—that gave human beings the powers of knowledge and free will. It was Eve that turned us into rational, moralizing human beings, instead of the obedient and mindlessly happy peons that God created. Ironically, our capacity to disobey was there from the start, but this is only further proof that Eve should not be blamed, but instead admired, because she overcome passivity to exercise her God-given ability. (In contrast to Eve, Adam stood by as a submissive follower, eating the fruit Eve offered him, and then blaming Eve before God instead of defending her!)
Using this perfectly valid interpretation of woman's moral nature, the abortion decision is solidly justified on theological grounds. The basic stance of the many moderate religious groups and churches that promote choice on abortion is that all human beings have free will, a capacity given to them by God at the beginning of creation. The ability to exercise one's free will is a necessary component of moral responsibility and growth. Free will defines the essence of being human—it makes us fallible, but it also gives us responsibility and freedom. If women are denied free will—if they are prohibited from making their own moral decisions about their bodies and their lives, it means that their very humanity, the way God made them, is being violated and denied.
The right to exercise our free will also means that we have a right to make mistakes. When deciding whether to abort or carry to term, a few pregnant women may make the wrong decision, for the wrong reasons. But that's what freedom means, ultimately—if we're not free to make our own mistakes and learn from them, we're not free at all. Further, when we sin by making wrong choices, it is God's role to judge us and God's grace that forgives us. The anti-abortion compulsion to protect women from themselves and to treat women like victims, or like children in need of guidance, robs women not only of their God-given free will, but their right to receive God's grace and forgiveness.
Protestant writer John Swomley distinguishes between Catholic and Protestant doctrines, explaining that Catholic doctrines are more legalistic: "The Catholic church would have us all obey the rules formulated by the Vatican, but Protestants believe that we are free by grace and justified by faith. ... Each [Protestant] believer has direct access to God and has the ability to know and do God's revealed will." Further, to the Catholic church, the phrase "the sacredness of life" means that the life of the fetus is all-important, but Swomley says, "To most Protestants and many others it means that there is a presumptive right to life that is not absolute but is conditioned by the claims of others. For us, the right to life and the sacredness of life mean that there should be no absolute or unbreakable rules that take precedence over the lives of existing human persons." (Swomley, 1992)
The progressive group Catholics for a Free Choice disputes that the Catholic Church requires strict obedience to its legalistic doctrines: "The Church is also more than the pope and bishops. It includes all the people of God. Clergy, theologians, and laity work together to develop church teachings. Many theologians and lay people today believe that abortion can sometimes be a moral decision and that conscience is the final arbiter of any abortion decision." Although the Catholic Church's official Canon Law states that anyone who commits the sin of abortion automatically excommunicates herself from the church, Catholics for a Free Choice points out that: "The church officially teaches that the conscience of an individual is supreme. If you carefully examine your conscience and then decide that an abortion is the most moral act you can do at this time, you are not committing a sin. Therefore, you are not excommunicated. Nor need you tell it in confession since, in your case, abortion is not a sin. If you do feel you committed a sin by having an abortion, you can seek reconciliation with the church by speaking to a priest in the sacrament of confession." (Catholics for a Free Choice, Website) Again, this speaks to the religious importance of both free will and the right to God's grace and forgiveness.
Most Jewish groups and many Protestant denominations are officially pro-choice. Just a few include the American Jewish Congress, the United Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Episcopal Church. Several religious organizations exist solely to promote choice on abortion, including Catholics for a Free Choice, and the Religious Coalition For Reproductive Choice. Using compassionate interpretations of Biblical and Church doctrines such as the above, these organizations help religious women come to terms with their abortion decision in a healthy, positive manner, without compromising their religious beliefs—in fact, by strengthening them.
Given this reality, along with the fact that religious patriarchy has no legitimacy in our modern free society, there simply is no excuse for fundamentalist Protestants and the Catholic Church to oppress and victimize women with their hardline opposition to abortion.
References and Further Reading
Arthur, Joyce. 1997. Psychological After-effects of Abortion: the Rest of the Story. The Humanist. Vol. 57, No. 2, March/April. (www.prochoiceactionnetwork-canada.org/articles/psych.shtml)
Arthur, Joyce. 2000. Case of the Court Jesters. Pro-Choice Press. Summer. www.prochoiceactionnetwork-canada.org/prochoicepress/00summer.shtml/#jester
Boster, James. 1997. Paternity And Danger: A Case Of Behaviors For Genes. Society for Psychological Anthropology Meetings. October. San Diego, CA. (www.anth.uconn.edu/faculty/boster/cohen)
Brody, Jane. 1997. Study Challenges Abortion Trauma. www.libchrist.com/other/abortion/trauma.html
Catholics for a Free Choice. Information For Catholic Women About the Abortion Decision. www.cath4choice.org/abortionfr.htm
Catholics for a Free Choice. Canada: www.cath4choice-canada.ca United States: www.cath4choice.org
Condit, Celeste Michelle. 1990. Decoding Abortion Rhetoric: Communicating Social Change. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago.
Cote, Robert. The Real Truth About the Abortion Controversy. www.menforchoice.org (Men for Choice).
Day, Shelagh and Stan Persky, eds. 1988. The Supreme Court of Canada Decision on Abortion. New Star Books, Vancouver, BC.
Gaylor, Annie Laurie. 1981. Woe to the Women—the Bible Tells Me So. Freedom From Religion Foundation, Madison, Wisconsin.
Gaylor, Annie Laurie. 1993. Why Women Need Freedom From Religion. www.ffrf.org/nontracts/women.html (Freedom From Religion Foundation)
Green, Ruth Hurmence. 1979. The Born Again Skeptic's Guide to the Bible. Freedom from Religion Foundation, Madison, Wisconsin.
Liberated Christians. www.libchrist.com/other/abortion/contents.html
Luthringer, Rev. George. 1992. Considering Abortion? Clarifying What You Believe. www.rcrc.org/religion/es9/es9.html (Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice).
Morris, Steven. 1997. Why the Religious Right Is Wrong. www.ffrf.org/fttoday/jan_feb97/morris.html (Freedom From Religion Foundation)
Poley, Franklin Wayne. 1999. BC’s Definition of God. Life Gazette listserv posting, Nov. 3. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/2ndrepoftexas/message/670
Ramey Mollenkott, Virginia. 1987. Respecting the Moral Agency of Women. www.rcrc.org/religion/es1/full.html (Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice)
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. www.rcrc.org
Swomley, John. 1992. Abortion: A Christian Ethical Perspective. www.rcrc.org/religion/es8/comp.html (Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice)
Woman Dies After Abortion
A Canadian woman participating in Dr. Ellen Wiebe's clinical trial of mifepristone (RU-486) has died. Dr. Wiebe said the woman developed an "exceedingly rare" infection of the uterus, caused by the bacterium Clostridium sordelli. The location where the woman had the abortion is being withheld to protect the privacy of the family. Dr. Wiebe's trial operates out of four Canadian cities, including her clinic in Vancouver.
The woman received the mifepristone on August 23, and two days later, took misoprostol, a prostaglandin that induces uterine contractions. By August 28, she was bleeding and suffering cramps, but an ultrasound showed an empty uterus. When the woman continued to exhibit negative side effects, she was admitted to hospital. Unfortunately, her rampant infection did not respond well to antibiotics and the woman died September 1st.
"The drugs caused the abortion and the infection is related to the abortion, but the drugs did not cause the infection," explained Dr. Wiebe. In other words, any kind of medical treatment or surgery involving the woman's vagina, including childbirth, would likely have triggered the infection, which can also occur spontaneously. In fact, such bacterial infections are more common with surgical abortions than with medical abortions. The Clostridium sordelli bacterium is found in soil, but also occurs naturally in the genital tracts of 5–10 percent of women.
Dr. Wiebe's mifepristone trial has been temporarily suspended while officials from Health Canada, the U.S. Population Council, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) complete a routine investigation. The Population Council is the financial sponsor of the trial. Investigators travelling to Canada were delayed by the terrorist attacks. In fact, the Population Council in New York City issued a press release about the death at 8:30 am Eastern time, September 11, resulting in minimal media coverage of the death.
The current drug trial is Dr. Wiebe's second—the first one was successfully finished earlier this year, and the second trial was over halfway completed before the death.
The Population Council said in its statement that there have been no previous deaths in treatments using mifepristone and misoprostol in the last decade. More than 500,000 successful medical abortions have been performed safely with the same drugs Dr. Wiebe used, mostly in Europe. "Not one single death" has been reported there, "indicating it's a very safe procedure," said Dr. Wiebe. A previous prostaglandin drug used in Europe in the 1980's was discontinued after about 200,000 abortions when one death was linked to it.
Mifepristone has not been approved for use in Canada by Health Canada, and the woman's death will probably delay the drug's eventual approval here.
In the U.S., mifepristone was approved last September by the FDA. After one year of use, about 500 health centres, and half of all surgical abortion providers, provide the drug. Women report a very high rate of satisfaction with the drug, which has been slow to catch on but continues to gain popularity. Although no restrictions have been placed on its use since the approval, a number of anti-choice bills that would limit access to the drug are currently making their way through state and federal legislatures.
BC Liberals Begin Massive Cuts
Just as predicted in the last issue of Pro-Choice Press, the BC Liberal government has embarked on a program of major budget cuts. Even though Premier Gordon Campbell has the largest and most expensive Cabinet in BC history, he is demanding that all ministries slash their budgets by up to one half. One of the earliest victims of the cuts was the new Ministry of Community, Aboriginal and Women's Services, which lost $34 million. Gone is the universal daycare program, a large chunk of community grants, and many other programs benefiting women.
Also cancelled are all of the abortion-related funding measures that the NDP government passed in March (see Spring/Summer 2001 issue of Pro-Choice Press). However, the legislation enacted by the NDP still stands, including making emergency contraception available through pharmacies, preventing the release of abortion-related information, and prohibiting designated hospitals that currently perform abortions from stopping services.
Our last issue listed six BC Liberal MLA's who have an anti-choice record. We would like to thank Kristina Vandervoert, who sent us a news clipping from 1988, with a list of Socred MLA's who supported then-Premier Bill Vander Zalm's stance against abortion. Two are now Liberal MLA's under Gordon Campbell: Claude Richmond (Kamloops) and Stan Hagen (Comox Valley).
Legal Status for Embyros?
On August 31, Alliance MP's Preston Manning and Diane Ablonczy asked Health Minister Allan Rock to define the legal status of embryos in Canada, and to establish a regulatory mechanism for ensuring this status is respected by researchers. Their request relates to Ottawa's draft bill on assisted reproduction, currently under review by a House of Commons health committee. If passed, the bill would ban cloning and restrict the use of embryos for research.
Three weeks later, Alliance MP Garry Breitkreuz introduced a private member's motion asking for a review of the definition of "human being" in Canada's Criminal Code, to see whether the law should be amended so that "an unborn child is considered a human being at the point of conception."
It is unlikely, of course, that either of these backdoor attempts to restrict abortion will have any effect.
New Abortion Clinic Proposed for Winnipeg
The Women's Health Clinic in Winnipeg, which does not perform abortions, has developed a proposal to open a satellite abortion clinic at the request of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. The proposal is an alternative to funding the privately-run Morgentaler Clinic, because Manitoba Health Minister Dave Chomiak apparently wants nothing to do with Henry Morgentaler. Dr. Morgentaler had been trying to negotiate with Chomiak and the NDP government to obtain public funding for his clinic, but negotiations barely got started this spring when Chomiak withdrew from the process without explanation.
Morgentaler Clinic manager Cathie Columbo said a new abortion facility could not possibly operate as efficiently as the existing clinic, which already has full resources and trained staff. She said the private clinic could easily accommodate the 1,000 procedures a year the proposed new abortion clinic would provide, plus the additional women’s health services that the province says it wants in a clinic.
The government is also considering buying the Morgentaler Clinic, but would probably do so only if they could control the clinic and Dr. Morgentaler did not participate in its operation. A third option being considered by the government is expanding the Health Sciences Centre program, where fully-funded abortions are performed in a hospital setting.
Currently, women pay about $500 for an abortion at the Morgentaler clinic, which offers greater privacy and has a shorter waiting list than at the hospital. Columbo said no matter what option the government chooses, it could be a long time before abortion access is improved in Manitoba. She expressed disbelief that an NDP government could play anti-choice politics for so long, forcing women to choose between psychological or financial trauma while they wait weeks for their hospital abortion or shell out $500 at the clinic.
In July, however, two anonymous Manitoba women sued the government for the costs of their abortions at the Morgentaler clinic in years past, during two different governments. The women claim the province's refusal to fund abortions outside public hospitals is unconstitutional. The Canada Health Act states that all services insured under a province's health care plan must be covered by the government, whether they are performed in a hospital or clinic. The lawsuit is going forward, and the Manitoba government has now filed a Statement of Defence.
Meanwhile, there has been no action by the federal government to enforce the Canada Health Act in any of the provinces currently violating it. Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Manitoba all refuse to fully fund abortions in clinics.
British Columbia — Vancouver protesters Mary Wagner and Glenn Reed were sent-enced on July 19 for violating the bubble zone outside Everywoman's Health Centre in June. Wagner was sent to jail for three months. Both Wagner and Reed got two years probation and a 21-month no-go order to stay one block away from Everywoman's. It was Reed's first offence, but it was Wagner's eighth. Judges have been excessively lenient in sentencing her, apparently out of respect for her religious beliefs and probably also because of her youth and deceptively meek and mild appearance. Also, on August 21, protester Kevin Elak was arrested outside Everywoman’s for violating the bubble zone and harassing a patient. He was with another protester, Steven Taylor, who was not arrested.
Saskatchewan — Protester Bill Whatcott of Regina again displayed his aborted fetus pictures on the streets of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, on August 2. No arrests were made. Whatcott had previously been arrested in June by Prince Albert police for displaying an obscene exhibit on the streets, but the charges were apparently dropped. Whatcott has been arrested eight times for his use of graphic abortion pictures in Canada, and once in the U.S. He was also banned from Mexico for five years for protesting against abortion there in 1999. In August, Whatcott delivered 1,000 obscene anti-abortion flyers to random homes in Prince Albert. Then in September, he randomly delivered the flyer to 5,000 homes in Saskatoon, along with a hate letter condemning homosexuals. This past summer, Whatcott hosted a Heterosexual Family Pride Day in Regina.
Ontario — Four Toronto area protesters were arrested September 28 outside an elementary school and high school in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, for breaching a peace bond. The group had been displaying aborted fetus signs in view of elementary school students, as part of a "Show the Truth" tour. They were released without charge because the 1999 peace bond had apparently expired. The Show the Truth tour also hit Sudbury streets the last week of September, displaying their obscene signs mostly outside high schools, including an all-girls Catholic school with students as young as 11.
Calgary Health Region Refuses to Release Abortion Statistics
The Alberta Pro-Life Association made a freedom of information request for the numbers of genetic terminations performed in Calgary after 20 weeks gestation, but the request was refused by the Calgary Health Region in order to protect the privacy and safety of patients and hospital staff. Meanwhile, long-time Calgary anti-abortionist Michael O'Malley is running for a seat on the Calgary Health Region board. If elected on October 15, O'Malley plans to try and cancel public funding for abortions in hospitals and clinics.
Edmonton Abortion Clinic Moving Amid Protests
The Morgentaler Clinic in Edmonton is moving to new premises, but some neighbours are complaining that they weren't notified in advance and are concerned about safety, given the atmosphere of violence fostered by some anti-choice protesters. However, the area where the clinic is moving is already zoned for medical clinics and there is no requirement for public consultation. Also, neighbours at the clinic's current location stated that the clinic has not caused any problems. Protesters have been small in number and not bothersome.
Thanks For Your Letters!
Visiting Nelson in the summer, I tried to see if Wal-Mart Canada has the same anti-Morning-After-Pill (MAP) rule, as does Wal-Mart USA. I asked if I could buy the pill for my daughter. The pharmacist said he was summer relief, but the regular one would be available in three days—when it would be too late to use the pill. He assured me that Wal-Mart doesn't ban the pill and that I could go to Shoppers' Drug Mart close by.
At Shoppers', the Pharmacist said she was trained, but hadn't been certified to sell the drug, so phoned the Safeway to find someone to meet the need. She told me to have my daughter come back later when the certified Pharmacist would be on duty. The store advertised the pill prominently. She stated that when she went for training with a group of Pharmacists, no Wal-Mart people showed up.
A girl needing the pill would have had to go to three stores to get it in this city of about 10 thousand. The access in smaller communities is even less, which could lead to unsafe abortions or unwanted births. All so pharmacists can refuse to offend their religious convictions. I would hope that objectors to Viagra would be allowed to refuse to sell it. For people who believe we must stop population explosion to save the environment, banning Viagra would help more than banning MAP.
Later, on the Internet, I was led immediately into a discussion of breast cancer when I asked about teen pregnancy. Surely dealing with teen pregnancy has many facets to it, and focusing on questionable claims that abortion increases the likelihood of a disease is a narrow anti-choice viewpoint.
An advantage of the MAP is that it only works before implantation in the uterus. Medically speaking, pregnancy begins with implantation so using MAP wouldn't increase this alleged medical risk associated with abortion.
- Ken McLean
Lower Mainland Sustainable Population Society
Limited Funding for Stem Cell Research
In August, President Bush approved federal funding for embryonic research, but only on existing stem cell lines. No more embryos can be created or destroyed under the guidelines. The decision pleased almost no-one, since anti-choice groups wanted all funding for stem cell research banned completely, while supporters of the research say that limiting research to existing stem cell lines will greatly impair American research into cures for spinal injuries, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, and many other illnesses. There is apparently only about 60 existing stem cell lines in the world, but many of these are not available to American researchers or are not considered robust enough to be of much use.
Waagner Placed on FBI's Ten Most Wanted List
Clayton Waagner, an anti-choice extremist and escaped convict from Illinois, was placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List on September 25, with a $50,000 US reward for his capture. Waagner was convicted of weapons charges in 1999 and escaped an Illinois jail last February. He had previously been stalking abortion providers, and in June, apparently posted an Internet threat saying he was ready to start killing abortion clinic staff. Waagner has allegedly been robbing banks to support himself, and recently fled the scene of a car accident on an interstate in Memphis, Tennessee. Police found a pipe bomb in his wrecked car, along with weapons, food rations, license plates from several states, and anti-abortion bumper stickers.
Anti-Choice Fanatics Blame Abortion for Terrorist Attacks
Numerous anti-choice groups and individuals blamed America's secular culture for the September 11 terrorist attacks, singling out abortion providers as one of the main culprits.
Most publicized was fundamentalist Jerry Falwell's denunciation of secular evils only two days after the attacks, on Pat Robertson's 700 Club TV program. Falwell said, with Robertson agreeing with him: "The ACLU's got to take a lot of blame for this. And, I know that I'll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'"
Although Falwell later apologized for the insensitive timing of his remarks (not the content of course), this did not stop many other anti-choice groups from joining the refrain, including Operation Save America, Operation Rescue West, and others. The basic claim was that the terrorist attacks were a warning from God that "if we continue to sow bloodshed in the womb, we will reap it in ever increasing horror in our streets," according to Operation Save America.
Adding to the lunacy, a few anti-choice groups disagreed that abortion providers were responsible for the terrorist attacks—instead, they claimed that they themselves were at fault, because as "pro-life” Christians, they hadn't done enough to stop abortion!
Pro-choice commentators were able to effectively point out that Falwell and his ilk had proven themselves to be intolerant religious fanatics contemptuous of democratic freedoms—no different than the terrorist hijackers.
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