"The dead women we saw had either bled to death or had died from overwhelming infections. Some had tears along the vaginal tract where they had used coat hangers to get up into the uterus and break things up -- like rupture the amniotic sac . . . Most of the dead women I saw were in their teens or twenties . . . The deaths stopped overnight in 1973, and I never saw another abortion death in all the eighteen years after that until I retired."--Pennsylvanian coroner
By Steven Morris
Antiabortionists are successfully chipping away at the right that women now possess to choose whether or not to have an abortion, enshrined in law by the Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973. Arbitrary waiting periods, harassment, unjust financial burdens and the murder of doctors by 'pro-life' assassins, are considered by right-wing Christians to be the moral approach to forcing their opinions on everyone else. We may yet return to the 'good old days' of back-alley abortions, and their harvest of abandoned women, mutilated or dead. This places the well-meaning Christian in a difficult dilemma. Despite the immorality of the antiabortion position, how can the Christian be pro-choice when the Bible and the history of Christianity are antiabortion? However, it is the dirty little secret of the antiabortionist leaders that there is nothing in the Bible that condemns abortion, and the historical bias against abortion had nothing to do with the alleged life of the fetus.
Abortion has been practiced since early times. Plato suggested in the Republic that abortion be used in cases of incest or older parents, and Aristotle recommended abortion as a way to limit family size. The position of the Catholic Church varied over the centuries, and it was only in the 18th century that the teachings of the Church shifted significantly toward the position that the human fetus deserves from conception the care due to humans. It was in 1869 that Giovanni Ferretti (Pope Pius IX) issued a decree declaring abortion sinful and banning it entirely. His reason was bizarre, and had nothing to do with morality. The change in doctrine originated with the acceptance of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. This unnecessary doctrine supposed that Mary (not Jesus!) was without sin from the moment of conception. We are not informed of the sins that Mary was expected to commit in the womb, that required such preemptive purity. In any case, the penalty for all abortions was merely excommunication, not civil punishment.
Since then, the Catholic position has become increasingly irrational. In 1968, the encyclical Humanae Vitae by Giovanni Montini (Pope Paul VI) banned contraception. Surveys in the United States indicate that more than 80% of Catholics of childbearing age do not, in fact, observe the encyclical's teaching. This failure has not deterred Church leaders from trying to make secular government enforce theological doctrines that the Church itself did not believe for most of its own history.
Of course the Church can make exceptions, when convenient to itself. In the late 1960's, Sister Claire Murphy was teaching school as a lonely missionary in Nigeria. The Biafran war had just begun when she received an unexpected package from her church. "The Vatican had sent me a whole cupboard full" of birth-control pills, Sister Claire recalled with a thin-lipped smile. "It was OK to protect the nuns against rape by the soldiers, but not the girls in our school."
Abortions were permitted throughout colonial America. The antiabortion laws that Roe vs. Wade overturned were not originally adopted to halt "the murder of unborn children," but to reduce the mortality rate of women who obtained abortions from midwives, homeopaths and local healers. Surgical abortions in the 19th century carried a 30% mortality rate from infection due to the lack of modern scientific knowledge. Antiabortion laws were not passed by an overwhelming public vote against abortion, but rather through the efforts of a few powerful groups such as the American Medical Association. Before these laws were passed, advertisements for abortionists were carried in religious publications as well as newspapers and magazines. The AMA's concerns about women's health are now obsolete; legal abortions have a mortality rate that is thirteen times less than for normal childbirth.
How did parents regulate the size of their families during the Middle Ages, when the churches controlled what people thought and did? Infanticide. Studies of 9th-century manorial rolls at St. Germain-des-Pres, of 15th-century Canterbury Church courts, of 17th-century Somerset parish records, and interviews with women in 20th-century Bosnian hamlets all show the same choice. Let the child be born and then let it die. In particular, let it die if it is female. This callous attitude is echoed in the Christian Right today, whose 'Parental Rights' amendment to the Constitution would strip children of legal protection. Fundamentalists may weep for the fetus in its three trimesters, but when the 'fourth trimester' begins, the baby is on its own.
Before fundamentalists take others to task about the humanity of the fetus, they should first justify the inhumanity toward children that their so-called 'Good' Book contains. Forty-two children are mauled by bears for a minor infraction (2 Kings 2:23,24) and Abraham's only qualification for being the father of his people was a willingness to kill his son (Gen. 22). Detailed instructions are given on how a man should sell his daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7). Jephtha killed his daughter as a burnt offering, and not a word of condemnation is given. Indeed, he was then made a judge of Israel (Judges 11:30-39,12:7). And the climax of the Christian story is the torture-murder of its central figure; Jesus, the son of their alleged god.
It would surprise many in the antiabortion flock to learn that abortion is nowhere mentioned in the Bible. The closest the Bible gets is an accidental miscarriage that might occur when men are fighting with each other (Ex. 21:22,23). If the woman dies as a result of the miscarriage, the man at fault must die because he committed a murder; "thou shalt give life for life." If a miscarriage occurs and the woman is unharmed, the man merely pays a fine; no life for life here, as no life was lost.
"Abortion is murder!" cry the antiabortionists, despite the Bible. "Thou shalt not kill!" But they conveniently ignore another well-known passage; "To every thing there is a season . . . a time to kill, and a time to heal" (Eccles. 3:1,3). Even if the fetus were alive, the taking of life is Bible-based.
But what is life, anyway? On this subject, the Bible is hopelessly confused. "The blood is the life" (Deut. 12:23), "For the life of the flesh is in the blood" (Lev. 17:11). But fertilized egg cells have no blood, and it is only when the umbilical cord is cut, after childbirth, that the fetus lives as more than a part of its mother. But then the Bible contradicts itself; it is the breath, not the blood that makes the difference between life and death; "I will . . . cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live" (Ezekiel 37:6), "thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust" (Psalm 104:29). To die one must first breathe, after childbirth.
"Life begins at the moment of conception!" antiabortionists insist. But there is no "moment of conception." Biological science has revealed only a continuum of development, from separate egg and sperm cells to a newborn baby. What "moment" are the antiabortionists talking about? When the sperm cell reaches the corona radiate? When it reaches the zone pellucida? When egg activation occurs? When syngamy begins? When syngamy ends? When cell division starts? When implantation occurs?7 Antiabortionists fall silent.
If the fetus is life because it has been given a "soul," what evidence can they present that the soul exists, to show when it arrived? And where did it come from? Forty percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. Their Jehovah is the biggest abortionist of all!
Many fertilized egg cells are discharged unnoticed through menstruation, but antiabortionists don't demand that these 'humans' be located and properly buried with Christian rites, as such a proposal would expose their underlying assumptions to well- deserved ridicule.
If the fetuses have souls, it ravages reason to suggest that any of them are sent to the flames of the Christian Hell. But if they all go to Heaven, then shouldn't the Christians be bombing the hospitals instead of the clinics, for endangering these fetal souls by exposing them to the mortal sins found in life among the born?
Perhaps most unsettling for the antiabortionist must be the history of Levi; "For he was yet in the loins of his father, when Melchisedec met him" (Heb. 7:10). The notion that Levi was alive as a sperm cell in his father's testicles leads to the horrifying thought that the average man, who produces more than 100 million sperm cells every day, commits genocide on a scale that makes Hitler's efforts look trivial. This mass slaughter can only be prevented by immediate castration, but Pat Robertson and all his followers seem curiously indifferent to the consequences of their own theology in this regard.
Until the antiabortionists have provable knowledge, and not theological guesswork, it is immoral of them to tyrannize others, who merely wish to be left alone. You don't approve of abortion? Don't have one! The pro-choice position is as tolerant and humane as it can possibly be.
On the other hand, the antiabortionists make a virtue of intolerance. In February 1994, Daniel Maguire's invitation to speak at the nation's largest Catholic education congress was revoked by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, because of Maguire's support of abortion rights. But Maguire's scheduled workshops were on matters unrelated to abortion! Even so, "I will not abide the presence of any speaker at our congress who teaches anything contrary to the full teachings of our Catholic Church," wrote Cardinal Mahony. So when a Catholic tells you, with a straight face, that he believes abortion is murder, he is not speaking for himself, he is just reading the script that the Church has handed him. The fundamentalists proclaim, "We don't have to obey the laws of mere men; we are obeying a Higher Law!" But since they cannot prove that their 'Higher Law' is anything more than a figment of their imagination, this undetectable 'Higher Law' is their license to be completely lawless. The motto of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue, "If you believe abortion is murder, then ACT like it's murder!" is a testament to Christian immorality.
And what if the antiabortionists succeed in criminalizing and prosecuting everyone involved in abortion? A survey performed by the Kinsey Institute in 1958 (when abortion was still a crime) found that more than 20% of married white women were willing to admit to having an abortion during their reproductive life. If the Christian Right is willing to send millions of women to jail for conspiracy to murder, they should first explain how they will prevent the financial crisis and social chaos their actions will inflict upon society. The war on drugs has filled our jails; a war on women would overwhelm them.
The persecution of abortionists and the women who need them isn't based on either the Bible or common decency. What drives the Christian Right to pursue this issue so remorselessly? The answer is simple, and chilling; misogyny, and the Apocalypse.
Misogyny (hatred and fear of women) begins at childbirth:
"If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days . . . But if she bear a maid child, then she shall be unclean two weeks" (Lev. 12:2,5).
Why is she twice as unclean for producing a daughter instead of a son? And why should a woman be unclean in the third book of the Bible for obeying the commands in the first book of the Bible? In marriage, women are certainly second-class: "thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee" (Gen. 3:16).
The New Testament is just as bad:
"Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence" (1 Tim. 2:11,12).
"Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience" (1 Cor. 14:34).
The submission of women to men is all-inclusive:
"Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife . . . Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing" (Eph. 5:22-24).
Influential churchmen continued this shameful attitude. In the 4th century, St. Augustine wrote:
"Nothing so much casts down the mind of man from its citadel as do the blandishments of women, and that physical contact without which a wife cannot be possessed."
The Protestants were no better. According to Martin Luther:
"It is evident therefore that woman is a different animal to man, not only having different members, but also being far weaker in intellect . . . For as the sun is more splendid than the moon . . . so also woman . . . does not equal the dignity and glory of the male."
"Men have . . . more understanding than women, who have but small and narrow breasts and broad hips to the end that they should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children." "We can hardly speak of her without a feeling of shame, and we surely cannot make use of her without shame."
John Calvin, whose writings helped define the Protestant position, similarly wrote, "let woman be satisfied with the state of subjection and not take it amiss that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex."
The Christian hatred of women was most clearly expressed during the Middle Ages. It was then, when the Church held the reins of power, that between 100,000 and 2 million women were tortured to death for the imaginary crime of witchcraft. Fingernails were pulled out. Red-hot tongs were applied to breasts. The women's sex organs provided special attraction for the male torturer. Bodies were stretched on racks and wheels. Virtually every mangled and broken victim confessed -- and was executed on the basis of her confession.
Efforts to humanize Christianity were crushed. The Albigensians taught that by her baptism and by her study, a woman could become the equal of male believers, achieve the ultimate purity, and be called a 'perfecta.' In 1208, Lotario (Pope Innocent III) declared a major crusade to destroy the Albigensians. When the last fortress was taken, the 200 Albigensians inside who had surrendered were burned to death. Years before, when the besieged city of Beziers fell, soldiers asked papal legate Arnald Amalric how they could distinguish the infidel from the faithful among the captives. He commanded, "Kill them all. God will know his own." Thousands were slaughtered -- many first blinded, mutilated, dragged behind horses or used for target practice.[9,15]
Renaissance humanism and modern science have helped to civilize Christianity and wean it away from its worst excesses, but the process is incomplete. It wasn't until the year 1928 that women were allowed to compete in track and field events at the Olympics, the same year that Ambrogio Ratti (Pope Pius XI) was publicly objecting to female participation in any public athletic competitions.
"The bishop of Rome cannot but deplore that . . . the delicate regard due to young women and girls should be weaker than in pagan Rome, which, though it descended to such debasement of habits when it adopted from conquered Greece public games and gymnastic and athletic competitions, excluded women therefrom for reasons of physical and moral good sense . . . If a woman's hand must be raised, we hope and pray it may be raised only in prayer or in acts of charity."
An editorial in the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano added, "Girls should think first of being good mothers of worthy sons."
The Catholic Church continues to demand that their priests be celibate, and refuses to ordain women. It is not clear if women are forbidden to be priests due to their spiritual inferiority, or if it is purely a matter of their unsuitable genitalia. When Pat Robertson, the leader of the powerful Christian Coalition, claimed that a proposed equal-rights amendment for women was "about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians," he wasn't kidding.
There is one other reason why the Religious Right hates abortion. Throughout human history, disease and famine have caused untold human misery. As Robert Malthus, who was educated at Jesus College and took holy orders, comfortably noted, "epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world." Modern technology and population control offer the prospect of freeing humanity from these horrors.
But this vision of a well-fed world at peace is a nightmare to the fundamentalist, who yearns for the Second Coming of Christ, which must be preceded by the worldwide calamity of the Apocalypse (Rev. 8,9). The small African country of Rwanda provides a glimpse of the future that fundamentalism demands. After decades of missionary work, Rwanda was 65% Catholic, 9% Protestant -- and had a total maternity ratio (number of births per woman) of 8.3, which doubled the population every 21 years. The social pressures became impossible, and the resulting civil war of 1994 led to the deaths of 800,000 civilians. The group African Rights says it has witnesses who can identify 28 priests and 4 nuns who collaborated in the atrocities. Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) has washed his church's hands of all responsibility.
According to Gerard Prunier, "In 1990 there were eight times as many people as there had been in 1900. And on top of that . . . one had to make do, where one's religious life was concerned, with virtuous, gloomy Christianity . . . Private frustrations were going to emerge, and the unspoken taboo of the mysterious Tutsi threat would finally be dealt with once and for all. It was literally the Apocalypse, ushering in the relief of the Last Judgement." "Thy kingdom come" (Matt. 6:10) is thoughtlessly muttered by millions, who give little thought to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who are supposed to come before them, and are willing to help them arrive.
The Catholic Church has another compelling motive for encouraging such overpopulation; it's good for business. People trapped in a life of misery and poverty are easy prey for a Church that promises a golden life in the hereafter, in exchange for obedience and weekly donations in the here-and-now. The population crisis in Mexico is a case in point. The Church turns a cold and uncaring eye on the 140,000 Mexican women who die every year due to illegal abortions.22 Mexico's total fertility ratio is 3.2, doubling the population every 27 years. Faced with starvation, Mexicans will migrate to the United States, and the Church will do nothing to stop them. According to official papal positions, every human has a right to migrate to the United States and take up residence; since the Catholic Church rejects the concept of national sovereignty, migration restrictions are immoral. As Father Richard Ryscavage has pointed out with startling honesty, immigration is the "growing edge of Catholicism in the United States . . . We are in the middle of a huge wave of immigration . . . and most of them are Catholics . . . It's the key to our future and the key to why the church is going to be very healthy in the twenty-first century." Is it moral for the Church to encourage policies that lead to massive human suffering, just to enhance a church's "health"? Apparently it is. The man who said, "Lay not up for yourselves treasure upon earth . . . Ye cannot serve God and Mammon," (Matt. 6:19,24) would find himself to be a heretic in the religion that he founded.
A Modest Proposal
The Christian Right has been able to keep the abortion debate going long after it should have been abandoned, because the debate has been a win-win situation for them, so far. By portraying abortion as a second Holocaust, they have won the loyalty and drained the pocketbooks of believers who might otherwise have found better things to do. They have also won against their opponents, who have too often conceded the moral high ground of the pro-choice position, and have been deflected from criticizing the theocratic agenda that the Right continues to pursue.
The antiabortionists will abandon their position only when it becomes unprofitable to hold it. To find out how we can make that happen, it is worthwhile examining a previous position that the Christians have abandoned: pro-slavery. Slavery is regulated and tolerated throughout the Bible. In the decades before the Civil War, 45% of pro-slavery pamphlets were authored by clergymen, who could quote chapter and verse of the Bible to support their position. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was well-aware that the Bible ordained slavery:
"It is enough for me that it was established by decree of Almighty God, that it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelations."
"We recognize the negro as God and God's Book and God's Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him -- our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude."
The Southern Baptist Convention, which now claims a membership of over 16 million, was founded in 1845 in Augusta, Georgia because of the slavery issue. The Southern Baptists do not like to be reminded of their heritage, and few of them (it is to be hoped) desire slavery's return. What changed? The Bible? God? No, the only thing that changed was the prospect of losing money and membership, over an issue that had finally become an embarrassment.
The antiabortionists will fade away only when constantly confronted with the hypocrisy and absurdity of their religious claims, which pro-choice advocates have so far failed to expose. "Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor" (Luke 18:22) should confront the antiabortionist at every rally, and be visible at every meeting that the very-rich leaders of the Religious Right attend. "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children . . . he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26) should shame every "pro-family" hypocrite, and "when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret" (Matt. 6:6) should embarrass even the dullest in the midst of their public and oh-so-righteous prayers.
The United States will destroy itself if it abandons the wall of separation between church and state that the First Amendment has erected. Pat Robertson and his ilk dream of running a theocracy, and despise that wall. But do they also despise the man who first asked for it, stating:
"Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" (Matt. 22:21)?
Perhaps not, but they are mad for power and money, and won't let mere Jesus stand in their way.
Dr. Steven Morris is a professor at Los Angeles Harbor College.
- The Worst of Times by P. Miller, p. 12,13,327 (1993, HarperCollins, New York NY)
- Masters and Johnson on Sex and Human Loving by W. Masters, V. Johnson & R. Kolodny, p. 113 (1986, Little, Brown & Co., Boston)
- The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics edited by J. Childress & J. Macquarrie, p. 3 (1986, Westminster Press, Philadelphia PA)
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- Church and State, v.49, p.142 (June 1996, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Washington DC)
- The Rwanda Crisis by G. Prunier, p.354 (1995, Columbia U. Press, New York NY)
- Distant Neighbors by A. Riding, p. 247,253 (1984, Knopf, New York NY)
- "Vatican Influence on U.S. Immigration Policy" by S. Mumford in Free Inquiry, v.14 no.2, p. 25 (Spring 1994, Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, Buffalo NY)
- Proslavery by L. Tise, p. 371 (1987, U. of Georgia Press, Athens, GA)
- Jefferson Davis by W. Davis, p.195, 319 (1991, HarperCollins, New York NY)