Abortion - The religious, ethical and philosophical base

Modern abortion practice on a large scale came about following the general abandonment of the Hippocratic Oath, and the adoption of  secular humanism in public medical organisations.
  • Abortion services are largely value- neutral. Because abortion is legal, the rights or wrongs of abortion are considered irrelevant.
  •  In most countries hospital staff may refuse to perform or assist at abortions under a conscience clause.
  • Some authorities insist that providing a "core health service" takes precedence over a right to choose not to participate.
  • The functionalist philosophy is that the foetus cannot function usefully, therefore is a 'non-person' and can be disposed of.
  • Traditionally, Christianity, Judaism and Islam hold that the unborn child is an individual created by God/Allah, for God's purpose, and no-one has the right to destroy what belongs to God.
  • In general, Hindu and Buddhist belief is that a human life begins at the moment of conception.

Whether an abortion is performed to end a pregnancy or not, depends on the moral and ethical views of the people involved. Ethical influences on decisions about who lives and who dies covers a vast area of knowledge.

Modern abortion practice on a large scale coincided with the general abandonment of the Hippocratic Oath and the adoption of a pervasive secular humanism in public medical bureaucracies.

Pragmatic secular humanism is largely value-neutral and provides the most compatible environment for the smooth functioning of public abortion services. For example, in New Zealand, the Ministry of Health expects District Health Boards to provide abortions as a “core health service” within the terms of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act.

In this bureaucratic ethos, the rights or wrongs of abortion, are irrelevant issues. What counts is “service delivery.” Parliament permits abortions to be carried out within the law, in licensed premises, and the role of the medical bureaucracies is to ensure that legal abortions are carried out as efficiently and safely as possible.

Clinical staff who oppose abortion on moral grounds can be excused under the “conscience clause” section of the Act. However, there has been anecdotal evidence that staff in positions of authority, sometimes insist that the obligation to provide this “core health service”, takes precedence over a person's right to withdraw from participating in an abortion.

The ethical and moral aspects are legion.

ABORTION: From Ethics to Politics - Christian Munthe, Professor of Philosophy at the Centre for Research Ethics in Sweden, examines the ethical considerations influencing "conservative and pragmatic" viewpoints. He analyses the implications for individual morality and public policy.

The Gradualist Position, which considers abortion to be progressively more wrong or evil as the developing human grows, is frequently employed by abortion-rights advocates to justify first-trimester abortions. Here the “Gradualist” case is outlined and critiqued with arguments in favour of the foetus being a “person” from conception.

“Gradualism” versus “Personhood” is central to the current abortion debate, as new 3D/4D ultrasound technology provides a window into the womb.

"Breaking Through the Stereotypes" by Daniel & Sidney Callaghan addresses the underlying differences fuelling the abortion debate. The Callahans themselves mirror this debate in their own marriage: Daniel is 'abortion rights,' while Sidney is 'anti-abortion'. "If our own domestic wrangles have not led to a general shift in position for either of us, it has nonetheless been valuable. Neither of us has remained unchanged by the other." They believe that the intractable debate between secular "abortion rights" and religious "anti-abortion" positions cannot be resolved through dialogue because each side represents the opposite of the other. 

Functionalism v Religion
Peter Singer, a pre-eminent philosopher, represents the ultra-utilitarian view entitled “Functionalism”. A person has value to the extent of how he or she can usefully function. According to Singer, a foetus cannot function usefully, and therefore as non-persons, are of limited value and can be disposed of. He also applies this to infants.

Singer concedes that if anti-abortionists could convincingly prove that foetuses were individual human persons, then abortion would be murder and should be outlawed. He believes that is not about to happen.

A writer in the British Spectator argued for a 'cynical realism.' He analysed the myriad moral and ethical angles on abortion and pronounced that hypocrisy was endemic to the controversy. “We should be brutally honest and admit ‘Yes, abortion is murder, and we want it.’”

Most religions, for example, Christianity (particularly Catholicism), Orthodox Judaism and Islam, oppose abortion on the understanding that the foetus is somehow an individual created by God for a purpose. There are significant variations on this theme within the Christian churches, but there is a general recognition that abortion is a very serious moral matter.

Eastern Religions The general Buddhist belief about rebirth is that at conception three things come together - the sperm, the egg, and the karmic force that is the effect of a previous life. Basically this means that Buddhists believe that a human life begins at the moment of conception.

If a human foetus is terminated or otherwise dies, this might mean in Buddhist terms that bad karma carried over from the previous life has been 'paid', and so the next life will be more fortunate. However at the same time the people concerned with causing the abortion (say the woman, doctors etc.) will be generating bad karma themselves for this act of violence.

In Buddhist terms whether an action is good or bad largely depends on one's intention. Most Buddhists would feel that abortion is wrong in principle, or at least very regrettable, but one should always examine the circumstances and allow for exceptions, and not be condemning of those who arrive at a different conclusion.

According to the Caraka Samhita, a Hindu medical text, the soul is already joined with matter in the act of conception. Though there are a few differing traditions on this matter (the Garbha Upanishad claims that ensoulment takes place in the seventh month), they are considered to be based on weaker evidence, and the mainstream of Hindu thought coincides with the position that the soul is present from conception.

Hindu ideology made an exception however, when abortion became necessary to save the life of the mother. The Susruta Samhita, another Hindu medical text, describes a procedure to induce birth during complications in the pregnancy. The ultimate objective is, of course, saving the mother and the baby. However, in the event that this is not a possibility, the text affirms, saving the mother takes precedence, and an abortion is justified.

Differing Christian Viewpoints
While the vast majority of Christians would consider abortion to be the taking of innocent life, and therefore contrary to Biblical teaching, the Bible has been used by various groups to both condone and condemn abortion. However, Christians almost universally believe that children are a blessing - a gift from God. "Truly children are a gift from the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward" (Psalm 127:3). God alone gives life, they believe, and only He should take it away.

Within the Christian Church there is generally a desire to follow and apply the teachings of the Bible. Generally the Church is united in its condemnation of abortion as most Christians believe abortion violates the commandment which prohibits murderous acts.

Believing that God is not only a 'God of Love' but also a 'God of Justice,' those Christians who are opposed to abortion regard it as a serious evil that must be eliminated from society.

Planned Parenthood has formed a Religious Coalition for Choice of ministers who support abortion, even appointing a chaplain, Rev. Ignacio Castuera, to "articulate the spiritual dimensions of sexuality and reproduction."

Catholic viewpoint
The official Catholic position teaches that “since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law…Abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2271)

There is no documented record that any Pope, Council, Saint or early Church Father has ever supported abortion in any circumstance. 

The Vatican Declaration on Procured Abortion (#7) gives a comprehensive answer to refute charges that the Catholic Church ever permitted abortion. It can be read  here.

Opposing Catholic viewpoint
Frances Kissling is President of Catholics For a Free Choice (CFFC) which was founded in 1973.

CFFC claims to respect Church Law while at the same time opposing what the Catholic Church teaches. In an interview with the magazine Mother Jones. Kissling stated: “I spent twenty years looking for a government that I could overthrow without being thrown in jail. I finally found one in the Catholic Church.”

Funded almost entirely by abortion-rights foundations, CFFC describes itself as as the nation’s largest Catholic pro-choice organization. It has been openly denounced by both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops as being a double fraud; i.e., (i) it is not Catholic, and (ii) in having no members, it is not an organization.

You can read more about Kissling, CFFC and a summary of her article "The ethics of pro-choice advocacy" here.