Breath is life

illustration: woman, dove, tree

Defending abortion from a liberal Christian perspective.

Image: © Tonya Engel

© Tonya Engel


The Rev. William (Scotty) McLennan, a Unitarian Universalist minister, is the dean for religious life at Stanford Uni­versity. (He is also the inspiration for cartoonist Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury character, the Rev. Scot Sloan.) His latest book, Jesus Was a Liberal(Palgrave 2009), offers a thoughtful case for liberal Christianity—including this theological justification for abortion. Whatever your own theological views may be, we hope this essay will give you a fresh perspective and help you in conversations with Christians about this controversial subject. The Unitarian Universalist Association has consistently supported a woman’s right to choose abortion since 1968. —The editors

I preached a sermon in Stanford University’s Memorial Church after the national elections in 2004 mentioning that exit polls showed 22 percent of Americans nationwide put “moral values” as their top issue. Commentators had explained that, “No doubt about it, abortion and gay marriage were the wedge issues that separated the [Republicans from the Democrats] in the voting booth.” Those “moral values” voters went for President George W. Bush by 79 percent, as compared to 18 percent for Senator John Kerry. I am personally deeply concerned about moral values, and I didn’t cast my ballot for Bush in 2004. I affirmed in a post-election sermon that “I’m a professing Christian among many who, on religious grounds, is pro-choice on abortion and in favor of gay marriage.”

At the talkback after the sermon, a Stanford student asked me to explain my statement that I’m pro-choice on abortion on religious grounds. He could understand how I might be pro-choice on pragmatic grounds, or on the basis of a political philosophy that we shouldn’t legislate what other people can do in their private sexual lives. But he’d certainly never heard anyone defend a pro-choice position on explicitly religious grounds. He thought the only genuine Christian position was, and ever could be, antiabortion and therefore anti-choice. I gave him a brief answer in the talkback, reminding him that most mainline Protestant Christian denominations, along with Reform and Conservative Jews, have issued pro-choice proclamations consistently over the last thirty years. I also admitted that I hadn’t preached on this subject in my years at Stanford, and that I should probably say something about it from the pulpit.

So in December, in the midst of Advent—when the gospel reading in the lectionary was the Magnificat of Mary, her hymn of praise to God for the promised birth of Jesus from her very womb—I preached my Christian rationale for abortion. Why, in the midst of a period of expectation of the birth of the Christ child in the liturgical calendar, would I speak about the religious justification for abortion? Precisely because Mary’s position in the Advent story is similar to that of many women who choose to have an abortion and yet so very different. She’s young and poor. She faces unexpected pregnancy—not something she has planned for or wants at this time in her life. She isn’t married yet. She knows what this might mean to the man she wants to marry. He’ll realize that this can’t be his baby she’s carrying because they haven’t had sexual relations yet. Even though she’s formally engaged to him, this could mean the end of their marriage before it begins.

And sure enough, as it’s reported in Matthew’s gospel, once Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, [he] planned to dismiss her quietly.” The account in Matthew continues in this way: “But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’” So Mary’s situation is utterly unique. She is the most blessed among all women. She is to be favored by becoming the mother of the Son of God. After she questions the angel Gabriel when he firsts visits to tell her of her favor with God, and after some soul-searching, Mary makes a voluntary decision, as the Gospel of Luke puts it, to allow the Holy Spirit to come upon her, to have the power of the Most High overshadow her. Mary says: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Precisely because Mary’s situation is utterly unique, it places in bold relief other girls and women who have not voluntarily chosen to become pregnant. How about an 11- or 12-year-old, or a teenager, who has been continually forced to undergo incest by her father or stepfather? What about a woman who is forcibly raped on her way home from work by someone she never met, or a Stanford student who is date-raped by a fellow student whom she thought she knew rather well but obviously didn’t? What about a mature woman—even one who’s happily had other children—whose physical or mental health might be severely compromised by this pregnancy? What about a fetus that has been found through amniocentesis or ultrasound to be severely and irreversibly impaired? Of course, the cases go on and on, including those so often cited by anti-abortion activists—those women who are allegedly having “abortions of convenience” (which undeniably does happen).

I want to make it clear that I respect the views of religious people who are opposed to abortion because they truly consider it to be murder or simply to be wrong on other conscientiously considered grounds. There are many of them on the Stanford campus in the Catholic community, evangelical Protestant groups, and other religious organizations. My job as dean for religious life is to be sure that their voices are not squelched or censored and that they can flourish and thrive in religious communities. I personally would join them on this issue if I thought that an embryo or a fetus is fully a human being or a person. I don’t think “a woman’s right to choose” is a sufficient answer to the claim that “abortion is murder.” If by abortion we’re killing human beings or persons, then a woman does not have a right to choose to kill, except in the very limited circumstances of self-defense—where it’s a matter of either she dies or the fetus dies (say in an ectopic pregnancy or with certain kinds of cancer).

Yet fetus as “person” or “human being” has never been a settled question within Christianity or Judaism. There are large segments of the Judeo-Christian world that, historically and currently, see the embryo or fetus as potential human life, but not as fully human until birth or until some stage in fetal development well past conception. My personal religious understanding is that human life or personhood begins at birth, but I also think there are important protections that should be applied to potential human life at certain stages of fetal development. Let me trace some of that religious history now, especially since the Bible is appealed to by so many antiabortion Christians. This discussion may seem a bit technical, but I believe the background is important to understand.

There’s nothing explicitly said in the Bible about induced abortion. Zero. The Jewish position begins with Exodus 21:22: “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.” So, only a fine; no punishment for homicide. On the basis of this passage, the rabbis argued in the Talmud that a fetus is not considered adam (human) and has no legal standing as a person. Killing a fetus is not murder and it is not treated that way. The mainstream Jewish position historically and today is that human life or personhood begins at birth, when we take our first breath. There are a number of biblical passages that have been cited by rabbis over the years as connecting the breath and human life, starting with the creation story in Genesis 2:7: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

This is not to say that Judaism doesn’t take the value of potential life in the womb very seriously, before and after the heart starts beating and brain activity begins. Historically, as required in Exodus, there have been fines for killing a fetus, and, in the words of the Conservative rabbinate, “the decision to abort should not be taken lightly.” Most Orthodox rabbis approve abortion only to protect the life or health of the mother. Conservative rabbis sanction abortion under a wider range of circumstances, but always thoughtfully and prayerfully. The Reform rabbinate leaves the decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy in the hands of a woman or her family, but recognizes how difficult that decision often is.

For most of the history of the Catholic Church, one did not become a human being or a person until well after conception. Saint Augustine in the fourth century adopted the Aristotelian belief that the human soul didn’t enter the fetus until forty to ninety days after conception. In roughly the same era Saint Jerome emphasized human shape: “The seed gradually takes shape in the uterus, and it [abortion] does not count as killing until the individual elements have acquired their external appearance and their limbs.” The Apostolic Constitutions of the late fourth century allowed abortion if it was done both before the human soul entered and before the fetus was of human shape. Saint Thomas Aquinas of the thirteenth century followed Augustine in not considering the abortion of a non-ensouled fetus to be murder. Pope Innocent III, earlier in the same century as Aquinas, emphasized that the soul enters the body at the time of quickening—when a prospective mother first feels movement of the fetus. When Pope Gregory XIV affirmed the quickening test for ensoulment in 1591, he set the time for it as 116 days into pregnancy, or the sixteenth week. The great reversal came with Pope Pius IX in 1869. He assumed ensoulment at conception, and by 1917 church canon law had been revised, dropping the prior distinction it had upheld between “animated” and “inanimated” fetuses. Pius’s position has been maintained by the Roman Catholic Church ever since.

Likewise, criminal abortion statutes generally didn’t come into effect in the United States until the latter part of the nineteenth century. The common law had long held that an abortion performed prior to quickening was not an indictable offense. Even abortion of a quickened fetus was generally not considered a criminal act under the common law, or at most a mere misdemeanor. The U.S. Supreme Court in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision used religious references to explain, in part, why the word “person” as used in the U.S. Constitution does not include the unborn: “There has always been strong support for the view that [human] life does not begin until live birth. This was the belief of the Stoics. It appears to be the predominant . . . attitude of the Jewish faith. It may be taken to represent . . . a large segment of the Protestant community.”

I’m personally part of that large Protestant community that believes that human life and personhood begins at birth. Some of my feelings admittedly may stem from the connotations of the words “birth” and “conception” with which I have grown up within the church. We speak of Esau and others in the Bible having a birthright, not a conception-right. After a strong religious experience we might say we’ve been “born again,” but not “conceived again.” Various biblical characters speak of the land of their birth. We honor the birth of the nation of Israel. We celebrate birthdays, including Christmas as the birth of Christ. I have done a concordance check of the Bible and found 216 references to “birth” or “born” and only 43 to “conception” or “conceive,” a five-to-one ratio. The majority of the uses of “conceived” were linked to being born in this way: “She conceived and bore a child.”

I’m also personally compelled by the notion that it’s the breath of life that makes us full human beings. I’ll never forget the sight of each of my children emerging into the world blue and lifeless, being struck on the back by the doctor, taking their first breath, and becoming ruddy-colored as they began crying their way into life. Now they were tiny people. Now they had joined the human race, not before.

On the other hand, it seems religiously important to me to be very concerned about potential life, not just actual life. Christians celebrate Advent as a time of waiting in the darkness for the light that will come at Christmas. The nine months of pregnancy for an expectant mother is a very important time of preparation for the baby-to-come and, ideally, of careful monitoring of maternal and prenatal health. Fetal life is a magnificent continuum of development from the zygote at the time of conception, to the manifestation of the embryo at about fourteen days, to the formation of what we call the fetus at about three months. Of course, for those first two weeks it’s not at all clear that the zygote will become a singular embryo, much less a human being. Two-thirds of the time, the zygote doesn’t develop into anything at all. Sometimes it develops into a tumor. Or it could become an embryo or more than one if it splits into twins. Once it’s an embryo, it’ll be a long time—another twenty-two weeks or so—before it reaches viability or the stage of development when it might survive outside the womb.

This is where I personally think the Supreme Court got it right in 1973 in terms of protection of potential life. During the first trimester—when abortion could occur with an IUD, a morning-after-pill, RU-486, or minor surgical procedures—the decision to abort is entirely the woman’s. In the second trimester, with quickening, human shaping, and the necessity of more complicated surgical procedures, the state has a right to regulate medical procedures to protect the health of the mother. (In fact, less than 10 percent of abortions now take place after the first trimester.) By the third trimester, though, the potential life has become viable; since the fetus could now live outside the womb, the state has a right to protect that potential life by prohibiting abortion except to preserve the life or health of the mother.

Despite all of this discussion, I want to emphasize that I and many other religious people of all persuasions would like greatly to reduce the incidence of abortion. As the Lutheran Women’s Caucus resolved in 1990, abortion should not be the stopgap for lack of contraception, for inadequate sex education, or for irresponsible sexuality—not to mention being resorted to because of insufficient social support for new human life, such as lack of health care, child care, or parental leave. I join in the call of the Lutheran Women’s Caucus to work actively for social and cultural changes that will reduce the incidence of abortion and also stop the scapegoating of women who have abortions. Nonetheless, there are strong religious grounds, historical and contemporary, to defend a woman’s right to an abortion.

Excerpted with permission from Jesus Was a Liberal: Reclaiming a Christianity for All (Palgrave Macmillan), © 2009 by William L. McLennan Jr.

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