conclusions that might be drawn from media reports and protest marches, there
is no one, true, universal Christian position on abortion. There is, however, consensus
on one theological principle: All human life is sacred and every person is
created in the “likeness and image of God”. The questions which complicate the
matter are two:
“When does life begin?”
“Which has more value: the life of a fetus or the life of a woman?”
There are many
Christians, most of whom who would define themselves as Catholic, Orthodox or
Evangelical, who believe that human life is strictly a biological phenomenon,
measured from the moment of conception – when the sperm and egg unite. Psalm
139:13-16, Psalm 51:5, Psalm 22:10-11, Job 31:15, and Jeremiah 1:4-5 are often
used to support this conclusion.
Further, often using the passage of Mary, the mother of Jesus visiting her cousin Elizabeth when the fetus that would become John the Baptist ‘leapt in her womb’ (Luke 1:39-44), it is believed that “From the first moment of his (sic) existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2270).
This, of course, means that, “Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.” (CCC #2274); this requires the prohibition of embryo research or use for Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR) that entail the destruction of human embryos. However, while Eastern Orthodox tradition opposes embryonic stem cell research, it accepts such research when fetuses from spontaneous miscarriages and not elective abortions are used.
Other, equally devout Christians, believe in the biblically based principle that human life begins at birth. Citing Genesis 2:7, G-d forms a figure from the Earth, but it does not become Adam until
G-d "breathes into him the breath of life, and he
It is strongly believed by these Christians that life begins when you draw your first breath, further asserting that this is when G-d places your soul in your body. Before this moment, a person isn’t a person but a clump of cells, dependent upon the body of the mother for life.
Many faithful Christians argue that there is no decisive basis in scripture to support the absolute stance that life begins at conception and that abortion is murder. That said, only one passage in the Bible speaks directly about the value of a fetal life compared to the value of the life of a born person, Exodus 21:22-24:
<<22 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage, but no other injury occurs, then the guilty party will be fined what the woman's husband demands, as negotiated with the judges. 23 But if the woman herself is injured, the punishment shall be life for life, . . .24 . . . an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a bruise for a bruise, a wound for a wound.“>>
It is this
question – the value of the life of a woman vs. the life of a fetus – and the
answer which decides clearly for the life of a woman, which seems to be most
compelling reason for the overwhelming support of the right to an abortion for
women who have suffered rape or incest or when the pregnancy places the life of
the woman in danger.
Of the eleven Christian statements included in a 2013 Pew Research Center study, only the Roman Catholic hierarchy officially state that they oppose abortion in all circumstances.
All judicatories in the other denominations, even the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), and the Missouri Synod Lutherans concede that abortion is justifiable when a woman’s life is in danger.
The LDS, the NAE, and the Episcopalians also specifically mention that rape and incest are also considered justifiable reasons to terminate a pregnancy.
Many mainline Christian denominations have thoughtful and robust statements on abortion that, like the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s statement, calls for a public discussion of abortion that moves beyond the narrow binary of pro-life and pro-choice.
And many Christian denominations share the position of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that women can “make good moral choices in regard to problem pregnancies.”
My own Episcopal Church holds that while they, “regard all abortion as having a tragic dimension,” it expresses its “unequivocal opposition to any legislative, executive or judicial action on the part of local, state or national governments that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision.”
The Unitarian Universalists have been leaders on issues of reproductive health, rights and justice since the early 1960s, believing they “have a moral responsibility to demand and ensure that abortion protections are codified into law.”
The argument for
or against abortion through the narrow lens of “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice”
simply does not suit the majority of American Christians. This is no doubt due to the fact that so many
Christians have had an abortion.
A 2021 study completed by LifeWay, a self-identified conservative “pro-life” group, indicated that 70% of all women who have had an abortion identify as Christian, which includes Catholics (27%), Protestants (26%), non-denominational (15%), and Orthodox (2%). Among Protestants, more identify as Baptists (33%), Methodist (11%), Presbyterian (10%), or Lutheran (9%).
According to a 2022 poll conducted by Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 64 percent of U.S. Catholics (and 40 percent of Catholic Republicans) agreed that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, almost identical to the 65 percent of all adult Americans who held that view.
In fact, many religious organizations and people – including Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i, and “spiritual but not religious” – work together through the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice to advocate for women’s reproductive health including continued access to safe and legal abortion services in this country.
While there is no one “Christian perspective” on abortion, if we believe that we are made in the likeness and image of God and, as such, human life is sacred, I believe that we will be able to move beyond the narrow “pro-life/pro-choice” binary and into that which honors and respects the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” promised at the very foundation of this country.
The Rev Dr Elizabeth Kaeton is an Episcopal priest who has been involved with the Religious Coalition for Reproduction Choice since 1997, having served for a decade on the national board of RCRC, two terms as Vice President. She was President of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus, on the Board of Integrity, attended Lambeth 1998 and 2008 and served as elected deputy to four General Conventions. She is the co-parent of six children, has six grandchildren and lives in Delaware with her spouse of 47 years and their two Shih-Tzus, Eliot and Olivia.