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Christian Perspective, The Professor's Corner

Dobbs v. Jackson and Religion

Students and friends have asked for my opinion about the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. What does the religion professor have to say? Did the conservative majority on the court overthrow forty-nine years of precedent to in effect adopt a religious ruling? The subject elicits strong passions. When abortions occur, families much prefer that discussion remain private. The hurt is raw, and convictions are personal and for the most part opinions are already established.

I would never refer to myself as pro-abortion. But I do think that abortion sometimes can be the least-bad choice among bad options. One can think of certain diseases, for instance. Anencephaly is a condition that results in the first weeks of embryonic development where the baby if brought to term will be missing large parts of the brain and have an incomplete skull. The disease is not compatible with life. The baby will be stillborn or die within hours or a few days after birth. There is no hope for anything but suffering for the parents and the baby.

Infantile Tay-Sachs disease is another terrible condition. Tay-Sachs is a genetic disorder without cure that results in the destruction of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The disease becomes clearly visible at around three to six months when the baby loses any ability to turn over, sit, or crawl. Seizures, hearing loss, the inability to move and other conditions follow. No treatments are available to slow the progression of the disease. After tremendous suffering for all involved, death occurs by the age of three or five.

There are also horrible medical conditions that place the life of expectant mothers at risk. Ectopic Pregnancy is an example, where the fertilized egg is attached outside the uterus, perhaps in the fallopian tube. There is no hope for the fetus to survive and develop, and, if not aborted, the mother might also die.

To me, the least-bad decision in such extreme cases as just listed seems obvious. Other life cases are much more difficult and at the end of this essay, I will offer a fuller exposition of my view. Certainly, the sanctity of the life of both the unborn child and the mother must be affirmed. For now, however, let me share that I think certain abortions, especially before the age of viability can be morally justified. And let me add that those best positioned to make termination decisions are not legislative bodies but the pregnant women themselves in consultation with their medical doctors and families as appropriate. Decisions are difficult and often complex. Abortions are not acceptable forms of birth control; and the use of abortions for gender selection or eugenics should be repugnant to any Christian.

Is this view of mine as quickly sketched a religious position?

Yes and no. It is a personal view. But certainly, it is informed by my faith. It is actually very close to the position voiced by the leadership of my church. While the United Methodist Church does not affirm a doctrinal position regarding abortion, it does provide a statement of social principles. And the church’s Council of Bishops issued a response to the Supreme Court’s decision. In brief, the council stated that “[t]he issuance of this ruling [Dobbs v. Jackson] has denied the sacred worth of women who face the tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion.” The council also stated that the ruling further divides persons of privilege who have the means to seek necessary health care from those who lack this privilege due to their current economic condition and the color of their skin. The church’s position affirms the lives of both mother and unborn child. But it recognizes also that life situations are complicated and sometimes require difficult decisions. (For the full statement of the UMC Council of Bishops, see https://www.unitedmethodistbishops.org/files/roe+v.+wade+cob+response+062422.pdf.) The United Methodist Bishops’ statement is in keeping with the view that such complex, serious, and personal decisions as abortions should be left not in the hands of government but of families, and especially in the hands of women in consultation with their doctors. I might add that this is also the position held by 80 percent of Americans (see https://navigatorresearch.org/americans-increasingly-favor-abortion-rights-following-leaked-draft-decision/).

Emory & Henry College is historically connected to Methodism. But in contrast to the United Methodist Church and most Protestant denominations, Roman Catholicism has established and holds to a doctrinal position. The doctrine is clearly pro-life. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI many times claimed that abortion is a fundamental violation of an absolute prohibition, the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being. Although not speaking as often on the subject, Pope Francis I also claimed as recently as September 2021 that abortion is murder. And the US Council of Catholic Bishops, in line with the popes, rejoiced at the Supreme Court’s ruling, indicating that it was the culmination of a forty-nine year fight to overturn Roe that had “legalized and normalized the taking of innocent life” (see https://catholicstarherald.org/u-s-bishops-issue-statement-after-supreme-court-overturns-abortion-law/).

Although Justice Samuel Alito indicated that the court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health ruling was not motivated by religious beliefs, I would be remiss not to point out that six of the Supreme Court justices are Roman Catholic: John Roberts; Clarence Thomas; Samuel Alito; Bret Kavanaugh; Amy Coney Barrett; and Sonia Sotomayor. A seventh, Neil Gorsuch, is Episcopalian but was raised Catholic. Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan are Jewish. Ketanji Brown Jackson, who just replaced Breyer on the court identifies herself as non-denominational Protestant.

Was then the court’s decision to overthrow precedent and nullify the decision affirmed by many previous Supreme Court justices rooted in the current justices’ Catholic faith?

Roman Catholic doctrine is formed based on the Bible and church tradition. We will want to examine these more closely. And let’s remember too that besides the institutional Roman Catholic Church, Christian right Republicans have campaigned strenuously over the last forty-plus years to overthrow Roe. And evangelicalism emphasizes the Bible, even sometimes to the exclusion of other considerations. So, let’s begin with the Bible. What does the Bible have to say about the pro-life pro-choice debate in our society? All agree that murder is wrong. But when does life begin? In theological language, does ensoulment start at conception?

Surprisingly for those who listen to the Christian right, the Bible says little about the subject. Jesus said nothing about abortions. Neither did the Gospel writers. Of the approximately 1,200 chapters and 31,000 verses in the Bible, I can only identify a handful of passages that are even peripherally relevant to the question of when life begins. Here are those that come to mind:

1. Leviticus 17:11. In the midst of instructions about how correctly to perform sacrifices, the writer indicates that blood shall not be eaten because “the life of the flesh is in the blood.” The question then becomes, when is the fetus’s blood its own and not the mother’s. Earliest viability for a baby surviving out of the womb without the mother’s blood occurs at approximately twenty-three weeks. When does the embryo’s heart begin to beat? Signs can first be discerned about eighteen days after conception.

2. Deuteronomy 12 includes a similar passage indicating that life is in the blood imbedded in a similar discussion about sacrificial rituals.

3. Genesis 2:7 states clearly that Adam became a living being when God breathed his breath (ruach) into him. So, can we ask, when can the baby breathe on its own? Again, viability for living outside of the womb occurs around twenty-three weeks. It is around eight weeks when the embryo first shows breathing motions.

4. Exodus 21:22-23. When discussing penalties to be imposed on those who hurt others, the Torah brings up the case of two men who while fighting injure a pregnant woman and cause her to miscarry. If the miscarriage is the only harm, then the offender shall pay a fine to the woman’s husband. However, if the woman suffers other physical harm, then the penalty shall be “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Clearly, for the priests who wrote this passage in the Torah the miscarried embryo or fetus was not yet considered a person.

5. Luke 1:44 portrays Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth describing how her baby, the future John the Baptist, leaped for joy in her womb as the women greeted each other. At that point. Elizabeth was more than five months pregnant (see Luke 1:24, 26). So, at that stage, let’s say five months, the fetus was a sentient being.

6. Jeremiah 1:5. The prophet indicated that he was known by God and consecrated by him before being conceived. If taken literally instead of poetically, Jeremiah was claiming that he existed even before conception. Any destruction of the embryo or fetus, then, certainly would be the destruction of life.

7. Psalm 139:13-16. The Psalm praises God’s handiwork in forming people in the womb and also claims that God saw the person while yet an embryo or fetus, before birth. Although not indicating the exact moment that the person becomes a person, it is clear that humanity arrives in the womb before birth.

8. Galatians 1:15. Paul expresses his sense of being set apart by God before being born. The statement is reminiscent of Jeremiah’s description of his calling experience but is even more similar to the Psalm 139 passage. Although occurring in the womb, Paul does not indicate when before birth he thought himself becoming a person. Like the Psalm, this passage too is vague in that regard.

Biblical arguments of life beginning at conception fall short. I write this while not doubting that many evangelicals are sincere in their belief that life begins at conception. They are just mistaken in further affirming that the belief is based on the Bible.

Can we then discount the Christian right’s stance as first political and only secondarily a religious argument? Such is tempting, especially since the largest evangelical body, the Southern Baptist Convention, held until the late 1970s a pro-choice position.

But how about the Roman Catholic position? Approximately 25 percent of Americans self-identify as Roman Catholics. While not Biblically based, the Roman Catholic Church’s argument is at heart moral. In my opinion, however, the three recent popes and US Council of Catholic Bishops have claimed too much, that is with too great a certitude, the institutional pro-life position.

1. For even within Roman Catholicism there is greater diversity of thought than the recent popes and the US Council of Bishops admit. Again agreed, Christians oppose murder. But in just war theory, for instance, killing can be justified as necessary under certain conditions, and even be considered an act of love. Moreover, the church historically has held strong, dissonant views about when human life begins. St. Augustine, for instance thought that life began sometime later than conception, during pregnancy. He did not stipulate the moment life begins, however. St. Thomas Aquinas also thought that ensoulment or hominization occurred sometime after conception, at least forty days later according to Thomas. Abortion was wrong, both theologians held, but not murder. Their reasoning was that because the moment of ensoulment was unknown, one should out of abundance of caution guard against what might be the killing of life. And further, they held, the aborted embryo or fetus carried the potential of life.

Current dissenting voices against the doctrinal view of life beginning at conception within Roman Catholicism include two of its preeminent moral theologians, Charles Curran and Hans Kung. Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Sonia Sotomayor and many other practicing Roman Catholics perhaps also are not convinced that life begins exactly at conception–or at least, they hold that the government should not enforce such a view. And you yourself probably have several (or many) Roman Catholic friends who for one reason or another don’t consider abortions to be murders. So, the institutional church’s opposition to all abortions after conception seems out-of-step with its own historical thinking.

2. Today’s institutional Roman Catholic Church also claims that abortion is an intrinsic evil. Okay. For the sake of argumentation, even if we agree that abortion is a wrongdoing of an entirely different magnitude than ordinary wrongdoings such as to endanger the individual and society at large, should a law be passed to prohibit and criminalize all abortions? Roman Catholicism also holds that adultery is an intrinsic evil, for instance. Should adultery be criminalized? According to John Paul II in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, deportation and subhuman living conditions can be intrinsic evils because they are hostile to life itself. Are our government officials who are deporting asylum seekers to be prosecuted as criminals? Lying with the purpose of deceiving is an intrinsic evil. Should the Supreme Court justices who misled the public during their confirmation hearings be treated as criminals? Again, I offer my opinion that in a society such as ours that values the non-intrusion of religion directly into the state and of the state directly into religion, the repeal of Roe smacks of overreach.

3. Catholic theology holds that moral arguments call for balancing lesser and greater evils and lesser and greater goods. At the beginning of this essay, I shared my view that abortion can be the least-bad choice and gave what I consider clear examples. But here is a more significant example to most Christian Americans. In Roman Catholicism, individual freedom is considered an overarching good gifted by God to humans. By denying all abortions, the individual freedom of men, family, and especially of women is sacrificed for the rights of the embryo or fetus. What are the limits of such calculations? Doesn’t it seem odd to you that the same Supreme Court justices who struck down the State of New York’s gun-carry restriction will not restrict the State of Arkansas from taking away women’s rights over their own bodies–even forcing rape and incest victims to carry their rapists’ babies to term?

4. The encyclical Pacem in Terris stipulates that all human rights must be balanced by duties. The right of the unborn child to life requires corresponding duties for society. By repealing Roe, tremendous responsibilities fall upon women. But where are the corresponding duties of government and men?

So, in sum, as a practicing Christian, here is my position concerning the repeal of Roe. I think that the court overreached. The decision clearly accords with the religious beliefs of many Americans and of the conservative Supreme Court justices. But it is not a deeply Christian-informed decision. Mostly, to me, this was a political decision, driven by a political party’s agenda. The Dobbs decision will make possible for state legislators to impose on the majority a religious view held by a minority. Furthermore, it will allow in some states the imposition of laws that do not adequately take the life of the mother into account; that undercount the complexity of real-life situations; that cause harm instead of good; and that are unmerciful to people whose existence begs for mercy. And I am skeptical that the legislatures of these states will provide care for children once brought into the world. Where are the pre-natal bills and the child support measures? Where is the justice in this? And where is Christian love, except for the embryo and unborn fetus?

Much in life is a matter of personal conscience. Besides the question of when does life commence in the womb, Christians are rightly concerned with what justifies the termination of pregnancy. Christian ethics are governed by the demands of love, mercy, and justice. How best to love the other, to show mercy, and to do justice?

When it comes to unanticipated or unwanted pregnancies or to matters of the mother’s health, many situations can be much too complex to be answered by government imposition. Rape, incest, teenage pregnancies? Will a child be born only to be abandoned on the street? Surely, Christians will want to follow Jesus’ command to love. Will the mother and child survive the pregnancy? The mother’s physical and mental health must be part of the equation. Will the child be properly supported once born? Will it be given every possibility to develop? Will the child be provided with human rights to food, education, health care, etc.? And let me add, will the child, once adult, be granted freedom over her own body?

The government has a role to play, certainly in protecting the life of the fetus once viable. And when reaching that stage of development, the unborn child has also other rights that should be protected. Termination then should only be allowed if the mother’s life is at stake.

But early in pregnancy, during the first trimester before viability, who is best situated to make the decision to continue pregnancy? I agree with the Bishops of the United Methodist Church. To my mind, the decision is a family decision. But even there, society should be careful not to give too great a weight to “family.” It would be a travesty of justice and love, for instance, to allow an incestuous father who raped his child to force that thirteen-year-old pregnant daughter to bear and raise the baby. More specifically, the decision should always rest first with the pregnant woman, the mother-to-be, in consultation with her doctor and life-partner as appropriate.

Besides protecting the rights of the fetus, once viable, does the state have other duties in regard to the abortion debate? Yes, at least two other functions. First, the government’s role should be the supportive one of providing pre-natal care for the mother-to-be and providing health care and life possibilities for the child once born. And second, the government should enforce financial support duties on men who impregnate women outside of marriage.

About religiousjourney

I'm a professor at Emory & Henry College and operate the religiousjourney.com blog.

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