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Religion and abortion

Many religious traditions have taken a stance on abortion, and these stances span a broad spectrum as highlighted below.[1][2]


Main article: Buddhism and abortion

There is no single Buddhist view concerning abortion.[3] Some traditional sources, including some Buddhist monastic codes, hold that life begins at conception and that abortion, which would then involve the deliberate destruction of life, should be rejected.[4] Complicating the issue is the Buddhist belief that "life is a continuum with no discernible starting point".[5] Among Buddhists, there is no official or preferred viewpoint regarding abortion.[6]

The Dalai Lama has said that abortion is "negative," but there are exceptions. He said, "I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance."[7]

Inducing or otherwise causing an abortion is regarded as a serious matter in the monastic rules followed by both Theravada and Vajrayana monks; monks and nuns must be expelled for assisting a woman in procuring an abortion.[4] Traditional sources do not recognize a distinction between early- and late-term abortion, but in Sri Lanka and Thailand the "moral stigma" associated with an abortion grows with the development of the fetus.[4] While traditional sources do not seem to be aware of the possibility of abortion as relevant to the health of the mother, modern Buddhist teachers from many traditions – and abortion laws in many Buddhist countries – recognize a threat to the life or physical health of the mother as an acceptable justification for abortion as a practical matter, though it may still be seen as a deed with negative moral or karmic consequences.[4]


There is scholarly disagreement on how early Christians felt about abortion. Some scholars have concluded that early Christians took a nuanced stance on what is now called abortion, and that at different times and in separate places early Christians have taken different stances.[8][9][10] Other scholars have concluded that early Christians considered abortion a sin at all stages; although there is disagreement over their thoughts on what type of sin it was[11][12][13][14] and how grave a sin it was held to be, it was seen as at least as grave as sexual immorality.[11][13] Some early Christians believed that the embryo did not have a soul from conception,[8][15][16][17] and consequently opinion was divided as to whether or not early abortion was murder or ethically equivalent to murder.[10][14]

The Bible has a few references to abortion; shortly after the first 10 commandments are given to Moses in the Book of Exodus (chapter 20), chapter 21 follows with verses 22-25 directly addressing miscarriage by way of another's actions.[18] The Book of Numbers in the Old Testament describes the Ordeal of the bitter water (sotah) to be administered by a priest to a wife whose husband thinks she was unfaithful. Some scholars interpret the text as involving an abortifacient potion or otherwise inducing a miscarriage if the woman is pregnant with another man's child.[19][20][21][22] Rabbinical scholar Arnold Ehrlich interprets the ordeal such that it ends either harmlessly if the woman is faithful, or with an induced abortion: "the embryo falls".[23] Early Christian texts nonetheless condemned abortion without distinction: Luker mentions the Didache, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Saint Basil.[10]

Early church councils punished women for abortions that were combined with other sexual crimes, as well as makers of abortifacient drugs.[10] Augustine affirmed Aristotle's concepts of ensoulment occurring some time after conception, after which point abortion was to be considered homicide,[24] while still maintaining the condemnation of abortion at any time from conception onward.[25] Aquinas reiterated Aristotle's views of successive souls: vegetative, animal, and rational. This would be the Catholic Church's position until 1869, when the limitation of automatic excommunication to abortion of a formed fetus was removed, a change that has been interpreted as an implicit declaration that conception was the moment of ensoulment.[15] Consequently, in the Middle Ages, a less severe penance was imposed for the sin of abortion "before [the foetus] has life".[26]

Contemporary Christian denominations have nuanced positions, thoughts and teachings about abortion, especially in extenuating circumstances.[27][28] The Catholic Church,[29][30] the Eastern Orthodox Church[31][32] Oriental Orthodoxy, and most evangelical Protestants oppose deliberate abortion as immoral, while allowing what is sometimes called indirect abortion, namely, an action that does not seek the death of the fetus as an end or a means but that is followed by the death as a side effect.[33] Some mainline Protestant denominations such as the Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, among others, are more permissive of abortion. More generally, some Christian denominations can be considered pro-life while others may be considered pro-choice. Additionally, there are sizable minorities in some denominations that disagree with their denomination's stance on abortion,[28] for example the large number of pro-choice Catholics.


Main article: Hinduism and abortion

Classical Hindu texts strongly condemn abortion. The British Broadcasting Corporation writes, "When considering abortion, the Hindu way is to choose the action that will do least harm to all involved: the mother and father, the foetus and society." The BBC goes on to state, "In practice, however, abortion is practiced in Hindu culture in India, because the religious ban on abortion is sometimes overruled by the cultural preference for sons. This can lead to abortion to prevent the birth of girl babies, which is called 'female foeticide'."[34] Hindu scholars and women's rights advocates have supported bans on sex-selective abortions. Some Hindus support abortion in cases where the mother's life is at imminent risk or when the fetus has a life-threatening developmental anomaly.

Some Hindu theologians and Brahma Kumaris believe personhood begins at three months and develops through to five months of gestation, possibly implying permitting abortion up to the third month and considering any abortion past the third month to be destruction of the soul's current incarnate body.[35][36]


Main article: Islam and abortion

Although there are different opinions among Islamic scholars about when life begins and when abortion is permissible, most agree that the termination of a pregnancy after 120 days – the point at which, in Islam, a fetus is thought to become a living soul – is not permissible.[37] Several Islamic thinkers contend that in cases prior to four months of gestation, abortion should be permissible only in instances in which the mother's life is in danger or in cases of rape.[37][38]


Main article: Judaism and abortion

Orthodox Jewish teaching sanctions abortion if necessary to safeguard the life of the pregnant woman.[39][40] While the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements openly advocate for the right to a safe and accessible abortion, the Orthodox movement is less unified on the issue.[37]

In Judaism, views on abortion draw primarily upon the legal and ethical teachings of the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, the case-by-case decisions of responsa, and other rabbinic literature. Generally speaking, orthodox Jews oppose abortion after the 40th day[41][42] with health-related exceptions, and reform and conservative Jews tend to allow greater latitude for abortion.[43] There are rulings that often appear conflicting on the matter. The Talmud states that a foetus is not legally a person until it is delivered.[44] The Torah contains the law that "when men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results but no other misfortune, the one responsible shall be fined...but if other misfortune ensues, the penalty shall be life (nefesh) for life (nefesh)." (Exodus 21:22-25). That is, causing a woman to miscarry is a crime, but not a capital crime, because the foetus is not considered a person.[45][46]

Jeremiah 1:5 states that “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”[47] For some, this verse, while talking specifically about Jeremiah, is an indication that God is aware of the identity of "developing unborn human beings even before they enter the womb",[48] or that for everyone God has a plan that abortion might be seen as frustrating.[49][50] Others say that this interpretation is incorrect and that the verse is not related to personhood or abortion, as Jeremiah is asserting his prophetic status as distinct and special.[51]


Although the Sikh code of conduct does not deal directly with abortion (or indeed many other bioethical issues), it is generally forbidden in Sikhism because it is said to interfere with the creative work of God.[52] Despite this theoretical viewpoint, abortion is not uncommon among the Sikh community in India, and there is growing concern that female fetuses are being aborted because of the cultural preference for sons.[52]

Unitarian Universalism

The Unitarian Universalist Church strongly supports abortion rights. In 1978, the Unitarian Universalist Church passed a resolution that declared, "...[the] right to choice on contraception and abortion are important aspects of the right of privacy, respect for human life and freedom of conscience of women and their families."[53] The Church had released earlier statements in 1963 and 1968 favoring the reform of restrictive abortion laws.


Although views differ, most Wiccans consider abortion to be a spiritual decision that should be free from interference by the state or politicians.[54]

See also


  1. ^ BBC "Religion and Ethics" Be aware that these BBC pages do not cover all Protestant, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist beliefs.
  2. ^ Patheos Public Square Topic Including Buddhist, Muslim, Mormon, and Pagan perspectives in addition to Catholic, Evangelical, Protestant, and Jewish perspectives.
  3. ^ "Abortion: Buddhism." BBC Religion & Ethics. Retrieved January 15, 2008.
  4. ^ a b c d Harvey, Peter. Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (2000). Cambridge University Press. pg. 311–20
  5. ^ Buddhism and Abortion on Patheos
  6. ^ Buddhism and abortion on BBC Religions
  7. ^ Claudia Dreifus (28 November 1993). "New York Times Interview with the Dalai Lama". New York Times. Retrieved 31 March 2009. 
  8. ^ a b When Children Became People: the birth of childhood in early Christianity by Odd Magne Bakke
  9. ^ "Abortion and Catholic Thought: The Little-Told History"
  10. ^ a b c d Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood by Kristin Luker, University of California Press
  11. ^ a b Robert Nisbet, Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (Harvard University Press 1982 ISBN 0-674-70066-X), p. 2
  12. ^ Ana S. Iltis, Mark J. Cherry, At the Roots of Christian Bioethics (M & M Scrivener Press 2010 ISBN 978-0-9764041-8-7), p. 166
  13. ^ a b Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish, and Pagan Attitudes (InterVarsity Press 1982 ISBN 0-87784-397-X), p. 50
  14. ^ a b Stem cells, human embryos and ethics: interdisciplinary perspectives: Lars Østnor, Springer 2008
  15. ^ a b McBrien, Richard P. The HarperCollins encyclopedia of Catholicism
  16. ^ The Oxford companion to Christian thought
  17. ^ Dictionary of ethics, theology and society By Paul A. B. Clarke, Andrew Linzey
  18. ^ Exodus 21:22-25
  19. ^ Berquist, Jon L. (2002). Controlling Corporeality: The Body and the Household in Ancient Israel. Rutgers University Press. pp. 175–177. ISBN 0813530164. 
  20. ^ Levine, Baruch A. (1993). Numbers 1-20: a new translation with introduction and commentary 4 (part 1). Doubleday. pp. 201–204. ISBN 0385156510. 
  21. ^ Snaith, Norman Henry (1967). Leviticus and Numbers. Nelson. p. 202. 
  22. ^ Olson, Dennis T. (1996). Numbers: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 36. ISBN 0664237363. 
  23. ^ Brewer, Julius A. (October 1913). "The Ordeal in Numbers Chapter 5". The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 30 (1): 46. 
  24. ^ The Janus face of prenatal diagnostics
  25. ^ Daniel Schiff, Abortion in Judaism (Cambridge University Press 2002 ISBN 978-0-521-52166-6), p. 40
  26. ^ See for instance Patrick J. Geary, Readings in Medieval History (University of Toronto Press 2010 ISBN 978-1-4426-0116-1), Vol. 1, p. 255, Karin E. Olsen, Antonina Harbus, Tette Hofstra, Germanic Texts and Latin Models (Peeters 2001 ISBN 978-90-429-0985-4), pp. 84-85 and John Thomas McNeill, Helena M. Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance (Hippocrene Books 1965 ISBN 978-0-374-95548-9)
  27. ^ "Religious Groups’ Official Positions on Abortion" Pew Forum
  28. ^ a b "Where does God stand on abortion?" USA Today
  29. ^ "Abortion". Catholic Answers. 2004-08-10. Retrieved 2011-12-30. 
  30. ^ The Catholic Teaching on Abortion, Allocution to Large Families, Nov. 26, 1951, Pope Pius XII
  31. ^ Vranic, Vasilije (January 2009). "The Orthodox Perspective on Abortion at the occasion of the National Sanctity of Human Life Day 2009". Serbian Orthodox Church in North and South America. Retrieved 2011-12-30. 
  32. ^ Harakas, Stanley S. "The Stand of the Orthodox Church on Controversial Issues". Our Faith. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Retrieved 2011-12-30. 
  33. ^ Christopher Robert Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion (Taylor & Francis 2010 ISBN 978-0-415-88468-6), p. 187
  34. ^ BBC "Hinduism and abortion"
  35. ^ Chapter 1: Dilemmas of Life and Death: Hindu Ethics in a North American Context | Date: 1995 | Author: Crawford, S. Cromwell
  36. ^ "A warning for doctors doing sex selection". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 30 July 2009. 
  37. ^ a b c The Pew Forum. September 30, 2008. Religious Groups’ Official Positions on Abortion, Retrieved on April 29, 2009.
  38. ^
  39. ^ Judaism and Abortion, BBC (2005-02-08).
  40. ^ Bank, Richard. The Everything Judaism Book, page 186 (Everything Books, 2002).
  41. ^ Talmud, Yevomot 69a states that prior to the 40th day a fetus is "considered to be mere water"
  42. ^ Grodzenski, Achiezer Vol. 3, 65:14
  43. ^ Articles published by the Schlesinger institute on abortion in Judaism: articles in English and in Hebrew, and the entry on abortion from the Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics (Hebrew)
  44. ^ Jewish Abortion perspective 1 on Patheos
  45. ^ Jewish Abortion perspective 2 on Patheos
  46. ^ Rosner, Fred (2001). Biomedical ethics and Jewish law. KTAV Publishing House, Inc. p. 178. 
  47. ^ Jeremiah 1:5
  48. ^ James D. Slack, Abortion, Execution, and the Consequences of Taking Life (Transaction Publishers 2011 ISBN 978-1-41284833-6), p. 27
  49. ^ Jon Mayled, Libby Ahluwalia, Philosophy and Ethics (Nelson Thornes 2003 ISBN 978-0-74877157-8)
  50. ^ David E. Leininger. God of Justice: A Look at the Ten Commandments for the 21st Century. CSS publishing. p. 57. ISBN 978-0-78802462-7. 
  51. ^ Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
  52. ^ a b BBC
  53. ^ Right to Choose
  54. ^ Encyclopedia of women and religion in North America: Volume 1 - Page 811, Rosemary Skinner Keller, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Marie Cantlon - 2006