A Fresh Challenge to the Religious Right's View of Abortion
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Nov 06, 2007 at 07:22:12 PM EST
Historian and prolific author Gary Wills has a new book out. And, at least according to a review in The Los Angeles Times, it covers a lot of ground that will be of interest to readers of this site -- including a debunking of Christian nationalism.  Head and Heart: American Christianities:  How the tension between reason and emotion has shaped Christianity in America also takes on what may be an even more formidable target: the Catholic Church's teaching on abortion, including the claim that abortion is "murder." This comes at a time when the film Lake of Fire threatens to re-open the national conversation on abortion in unanticipated ways -- even though it is being shown primarily in selected art house theaters around the country before it goes to DVD.

Here is what the Times has to say about the abortion argument in Wills' book:

As Wills points out, Rove made abortion the "linchpin" of his strategy to bring Catholics and evangelicals -- antagonists historically -- into accord within the Bush coalition. Other conservatives were quick to see abortion as common ground. William Kristol, the neoconservative editor of the Weekly Standard, wrote, "The truth is that abortion is today the bloody crossroads of American politics. It is where judicial liberation (from the Constitution), sexual liberation (from traditional mores), and women's liberation (from natural distinctions) come together. It is the focal point for liberalism's simultaneous assault on self-government, morals and nature."

Wills observes that what "made abortion so useful to Rove is the fact that it is the ultimate 'wedge issue,' because it is nonnegotiable" -- a position dictated by the commandment "Thou shalt not kill."

"Fair enough. But is abortion murder? Most people think not," Wills writes. What follows on that is perhaps the most lucid and relevantly learned concise discussion of abortion as a moral/theological question as you're likely to read anywhere. Once again, Wills' deep mastery of the primary sources and his respect for them as a believer himself lend his argument a compelling authority. He points out that Catholic opposition to abortion is a recent development.

"Abortion is not treated in the Ten Commandments -- or anywhere in Jewish Scripture. It is not treated in the Sermon on the Mount -- or anywhere in the New Testament. It is not treated in the early creeds. It is not treated in the early ecumenical councils." For that reason, Augustine, whose knowledge of both Jewish and Christian scriptures was encyclopedic, wrote, "I have not been able to discover in the accepted books of Scripture anything at all certain about the origin of the soul."

Similarly, Thomas Aquinas, "lacking scriptural guidance," relied upon Aristotle's natural philosophy. "So he denied that personhood arose at fertilization by the semen. God directly infuses the soul at the completion of human formation," Wills writes.

"Much of the debate over abortion is based on a misconception, that this is a religious issue, that the pro-life advocates are acting out of religious conviction. It is not a theological matter at all. There is no theological basis for either defending or condemning abortion. Even the popes have said that it is a matter of natural law, to be decided by natural reason. Well the pope is not the arbiter of natural law. Natural reason is."

This is a considerable and formidable challenge to the Catholic Church and to the American evangelicals from Richard Land and the Southern Baptist Convention to Jim Wallis, that have taken-up Catholic theology on the matter.  

The Religious Right may never be the same.

"Abortion is not treated in the Ten Commandments -- or anywhere in Jewish Scripture..." That's not true. Speaking as an Orthodox Jew who learns Torah and Talmud in Hebrew and Aramaic, I can categorically state that Mr. Wills is wrong, though the real answer may surprise you. The question of abortion is indirectly answered in Exodus 21:22-23. The Oral Tradition, without which the Written Torah (i.e., the 5 Books of Moses) is a closed set of books, makes an unequivocal inference that a) causing the end of a pregnancy is illegal _for Jews_ and that b) a fetus does not have the status of a human being.

by LeftWingPharisee on Sun Nov 11, 2007 at 10:13:32 AM EST

When is some Democratic candidate going to point out that abortions were performed in the Old Testament?

In the old days, abortions were performed by giving the woman a potion to induce a miscarriage.

And a read of Numbers 5 shows that if a woman was suspected of fooling around on her husband; a potion was given to her to force a miscarriage.

by Kuni on Sun Nov 11, 2007 at 08:08:59 PM EST

It is certainly not clear at all there is any abortion here, though it could be.

by chipmunk on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 02:01:45 AM EST

One of the problems in this debate, as a 'Biblical' debate, is that the idea of 'when the soul enters the body'  was introduced into Christian thinking through its encounter with the Greek and Roman world.  It is not a Biblical concept, where soul referred more to the 'life-force' of a person, that which gives and sustains life.  A soul could never be thought to enter a body, a soul and a body were inseparable; one could not exist without the other.  So most of the 'Biblical debate' is not Biblical at all, but relies upon Greek metaphysics.

Of course, this does not answer the question about when life begins.  I'm not certain that the Bible gives a clear answer.  It is curious though that nothing (or almost nothing if the other comments are correct - though the verses they sight are not particularly clear) is said in the Bible about abortion, it was certainly not an unknown procedure.

by chipmunk on Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 08:52:02 AM EST

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