Abortion: III. Religious Traditions: C. Protestant Perspectives

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Reviews of the history of Protestant teaching on abortion focus most often upon specific comments regarding abortion in the writings of leaders of the various church reform movements in European Christianity beginning in the sixteenth century. Several of the most effectual Reformation leaders, including Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564), were powerful both in reconceiving church practice and in articulating reformulations of Christian theological and ethical teaching. Consequently, for many of their followers and spiritual heirs, their teaching has remained uniquely authoritative in discerning Protestant truth claims. The formal criteria for discerning Christian truth proposed by these reformers, however, is best characterized as privileging the role of Christian scripture (usually referred to by Protestants as the Old and New Testaments) in adjudicating doctrinal and moral disputes. This primacy of scripture as theological and moral norm also characterized the teaching of most other sixteenth-century reformers, including the theological leaders of the many Anabaptist movements.

Since the sixteenth century, all dissent from authoritative Roman Catholic teaching and practice, including newly emergent Christian movements, receives the label "Protestant." The rapidly growing Pentecostal movements in Latin America, indigenous Christian movements in Asia, and the African indigenous churches that have become numerically preponderant among Christians on that continent all fall under this rubric. As a result, extreme caution needs to be exercised in characterizing "Protestant" moral teaching in any contemporary moral dilemma. Even when interpreters are familiar with very diverse Protestant cultural traditions, those who identify themselves as Protestants interpret the meaning of conformity to scriptural norms in a wide variety of ways, and reveal wide differences in biblical "hermeneutics," or principles of interpretation, of sacred texts. The diversity of hermeneutical options available accounts in part for the complexity of Protestant voices on abortion today.

Before identifying contemporary Protestant hermeneutical diversity and therefore the range of existing contemporary Protestant viewpoints on abortion, it is important to clarify the cultural roots of Protestantism that shape them.

Early Protestant Views of Abortion

Martin Luther's and John Calvin's theological and moral reforms were shaped by their reconceptions of both the meaning of Christian life and Christian ritual practice. Neither could be said to have proposed shifts in the foundational notions of human nature embedded in late medieval Christianity. Traditional notions of human nature, including gender and human species reproduction, were not in dispute and did not shift at the time of the Reformation. What is notable among Protestant reformers is the paucity of comment on any questions about human sexuality and reproduction, including abortion. Martin Luther, a prolific preacher and writer, did not mention abortion at all. Had he done so, he likely would have presumed its moral wrongness because he was educated as an Augustinian monk and was learned in the available theological texts of the period, including especially Sentences by the twelfth-century theologian Peter Lombard, which contained collations of opinions on abortion by earlier theologians. The lists included the judgments of many who associated abortion with sexual immorality, especially with adultery, and condemned the practice.

John Calvin also knew this authoritative tradition that explicitly condemned abortion, as his commentaries on Genesis 38:10 make clear. His remarks on Exodus 21:22 further attest that he believed abortion to be wrong morally. Modern critical biblical exegetes agree that Exodus 22:21 is the only text in Christian scripture that explicitly refers to abortion, albeit to abortion that occurs because of injury to a pregnant woman. The issue in this passage was not elective abortion. Even so, Calvin used the occasion of comment on this text to make known his view that the fetus is already a person, a matter the text does not address.

On gender, sexuality, and reproduction, these reformers maintained continuity with earlier traditions. Both Luther and Calvin also followed what they took to be early Christian theological consensus, that divine ensoulment (i.e., the point of spiritual animation of human beings by God) of human life occurs at conception, though not all the Protestant theologians who followed them agreed. Modern conservative historical interpreters construe Calvin and Luther's views on this point as confirming their own current belief that Protestant teaching agrees with modern papal teaching, namely, that full human life occurs at conception. Caution needs to be exercised here, however. Although the majority of Protestant theologians followed the view that ensoulment occurred when the "seed" was planted in utero, their perspectives were not developed in relation to questions about human gestation. To argue that these views speak to the value of fetal life is misleading, since their opinions were developed as aspects of the theological debate about sin and salvation, and not in relation to modern embryological understanding. In any case, Protestant ritual practice suggests that commonsense norms were in fact applied to actual fetuses. Protestants, like Roman Catholics, did not practice baptism in relation to miscarriages or aborted fetuses.

Modern Protestant Views on Abortion

Specific comment on abortion is rare in most Reformation traditions until the twentieth century. Perhaps in deference to the lack of biblical discussion, most reformers considered matters regarding the morality of abortion, like matters governing all sexual and reproductive behavior, to be ordered by human rational discernment. They were issues of "natural morality" rather than of revealed truth. Despite emphasis on recovering the meaning of Christian biblical tradition, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans (post-Roman Church of England adherents) maintained the view, longstanding in western Christianity, that much moral knowledge, including the order of human sexuality and reproduction, falls within the purview of "natural" human knowledge, that is, they are matters for rational deliberation and discernment. Contrary to the trend of modern Protestant fundamentalist biblicism in discussions of abortion, most Protestant traditions tended to embrace a type of reasoning that accepted human rational (and therefore "scientific") data as relevant to these moral judgments on these issues. The Anabaptists were often exceptions methodologically, however. They sought guidance on moral issues exclusively from scripture without reference to other sources. However, Anabaptists also stressed freedom of conscience in deliberating moral dilemmas, and often resisted fixed ecclesiastical standards on questions such as abortion. Not surprisingly, contemporary Anabaptist heirs often oppose with great adamance state-prescribed policies making abortion illegal.

It is not too much to say that Protestantism possessed neither an explicitly developed tradition of moral reasoning about abortion nor any elaborated body of teaching on the ethics of so-called medical practice until well into the nineteenth century. Reproduction in Protestant communities, as in all premodern communities, was shaped by female cultural practice and midwifery until at least the very late nineteenth century. Contemporary cultural historians agree that nearly all female subcultures encouraged some means of fertility control, and that most took recourse to abortifacients (substances that induce abortions) in extreme cases. Such methods were primitive and dangerous, however, and documentation regarding the range and scope of their use is all but nonexistent. The fact that women, and not men, both comprised and knew the culture of reproduction probably limited public awareness in prevailing practices. Knowledge about available interventions in pregnancies may not have been widely shared, and such knowledge may have been quite rare among male theologians until the "medicalizing" of pregnancy and reproduction in the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, male medical practitioners increasingly attempted to discredit midwifery, frequently on the grounds that midwives practiced abortion, but Protestant clergy in the United States showed great reluctance to support such efforts.

The major impact of the Reformation in shaping Protestant attitudes on abortion is rarely mentioned in traditional historiography. The most important influence of Protestantism in the abortion debate arose from the changes in spiritual practice initiated by Reformation Christianity; these changes in turn led to a powerful shift in how socialization into Christian faith took place. Initiation into Christianity moved from a locus in the church-based penitential system to the Christian family, which gradually became the basic social unit of Christian piety. Protestant spirituality was pervasively formed by this embrace of the family as the proper site for transmission of both faith and morals. The change engendered by the Reformation over-turned celibacy not only as the proper norm for clerical life but also as the norm of optimal Christian piety. The Reformation movements made the sexually monogamous, procreation-centered family both the center of their basic community and their strongest metaphor for divine blessing. For Calvinists, explicitly from the outset, and for Lutherans, Anglicans, and Anabaptists more slowly, adherence to this form of social practice came to be taught as a Christian duty. Parents were to oversee their children's successful entrance into procreative-centered marriage literally as a mandate of faith.

This shift in the structure of Christian sociology, more than any change in explicit moral teaching, shaped subsequent moral sensibilities toward abortion among Protestants. This new emphasis on the sacerdotal character of the family reinforced the appeal of Protestant Christianity in traditionalist non-European cultures as well. Both ancient Hebraic and Jewish and pre-Protestant Christian sources had at times equated procreation and biological fertility or fruitfulness as signs of divine blessing, and such pronatalist sentiments had had some influence in earlier Christian attitudes toward abortion. However, the rise of Protestantism made such sensibilities powerful in European cultures and central to modern Christian moral sensibility about reproduction. This portended a deep suspicion regarding elective abortion when the practice became widespread and safe.

Many modern Protestants arrive at their judgments about the morality of abortion from a deep-seated sense that any pregnancy is intrinsically a sign of divine blessing and that to deny this is impious. So deep does the equation of fertility and divine blessing run in Protestant cultures that western Christianity itself has strongly reinforced traditional patriarchal norms that female "nature" is centered in and fulfilled only through maternity. Traditional Protestant cultures (those untouched by religious pluralism) tend to experience any weighing of questions about the status of fetal life as expressing a "secular" or "antireligious" mindset.

Despite the strong pronatalist disposition of traditional Protestant spirituality, however, critical historians have also noted a certain tension between Protestant teaching on abortion and Protestant pastoral practice. Even in traditionalist Protestant cultures, where moral and theological discourse is unequivocal in condemning abortion, pastoral practice is frequently far less censorious. Scattered evidence exists that Protestant priests, pastors, and elders often treated those who had abortions or administered them with a surprising degree of compassion or even leniency. There is no evidence that the practice of abortion was deemed "an unforgivable sin," as some ancient church canons insisted, or that abortion was equated with "murder" or "unjustified killing." Even among contemporary Protestant fundamentalists, historians have observed this tension between formal moral condemnation and more permissive ecclesiastical practice. Theological and moral condemnation notwithstanding, noncelibate clergy may be in touch with many of the concrete conditions and dilemmas of pregnancy and reproduction that shape women's lives. In any case, the general stance of Protestant traditionalism and of the newer, postmodernist biblical hermeneutics is toward a degree of pastoral compassion, even if abortion is starkly condemned at the formal level. All current available data suggest that the rate of recourse to abortion among women who are part of Christian communities that formally condemn abortion—Protestant traditionalist, Protestant fundamentalist, or Roman Catholic—is at least as great as it is among women who come from liberal Protestant and Jewish communities or who are nonpracticing with regard to religion.

The most typical contemporary Protestant attitude toward abortion remains a traditionalist, pronatalist negativity toward the practice, with a reluctant recognition that abortions do occur frequently, even within the Protestant communities of faith. Such cautious negativity is maintained without strong, elaborated moral justification, chiefly because the strong cultural ethos of the existing family-centered sociology of the Protestant churches gives this view such plausibility. Traditionalist consensus tends to break down, however, whenever Protestant communities are confronted with debates shaped by conflicts within the wider culture or from newly articulate dissent within these Protestant communities themselves. Such debate is now ongoing in all churches rooted in the continental Reformation. For the most part the debate reflects the divisions in biblical hermeneutics already mentioned.

Three newer hermeneutical positions appear in the abortion debate. First, there is a quite unprecedented biblical fundamentalist hermeneutic asserting itself in many Protestant cultural contexts. This new fundamentalism is developed particularly to resist change in issues involving gender, sexuality, family, and reproduction. On all of these issues, restoration of a premodern interpretation of sex/gender and the reproductive system is the primary goal. Human gender and sexual identity, this approach insists, are rooted in "nature" and in "divine decree" central to the presumed "biblical" message. Using both the language of natural law and tradition of the mandate of divine revelation as synonymous and as equally legitimated by scripture, the new fundamentalists contend that the essence of the biblical witness is the biological-religious "givenness" of male/female nature and the revealing of the proper "telos," or end, of human sexuality. Abortion is unthinkable, a violation of all of the norms of faith and morals. This hermeneutic aims to make even the discussion of abortion taboo in Protestant theological and moral discourses, to make it literally unthinkable. This approach tends to drive from the field several generations of historical-critical study by Protestant theological liberals. Previously, liberal biblical scholarship had successfully persuaded interpreters of the Bible within mainline Protestantism that interpretation of scriptural texts had to be guided by awareness of different historical times and variations among cultures. Liberals recognized that biblical worldviews do not presuppose modern ideas about the origin and nature of the universe and its inhabitants. Such considerations undergirding previous Protestant biblical interpretation, once widely accepted, are often forgotten in the wake of the force of the new fundamentalist hermeneutic.

Second, although the new fundamentalism gains force in Protestant communities, most "oldline" Protestant denominations (rooted in Europe) remain informed by historical-critical methods of scriptural interpretation and continue to speak in a voice consistent with conclusions of the earlier liberal biblical hermeneutic. Broadly speaking, these churches acknowledge that biogenetic and other scientific knowledge must be given its due in deliberating the morality of abortion. Most concede that decisions to have abortions are justified in some cases and can be consistent with biblical faithfulness. This casts several major Protestant denominations on the side of the public policy debate that supports limited legality of abortions. Although several of the "old line" denominations have been strongly pressed by fundamentalists and traditionalists in their ranks to shift to antiabortion public-policy positions, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and United Church of Christ denominations, among others, have maintained their public positions. Discussion of what may constitute "justifiable reasons" for choosing abortion is decidedly underdeveloped in such Protestant communions. A strong consensus prevails that supports abortions in cases of pregnancies due to sexual violence (rape and incest); in cases where the life or physical health of the mother is at stake; and, perhaps, in cases where prospective parents lack the spiritual and physical resources to rear an additional child. There are also important historical reasons why old-line liberal Protestant communities place a strong emphasis on "responsible parenthood," but that story is outside the scope of this entry. This too is an important and largely unexamined chapter in understanding Protestant views on both family planning and abortion.

Finally, in nearly all contemporary Protestant communities/cultures, another hermeneutic for interpreting the Christian abortion tradition is emerging. It may be called a liberationist or even a profeminist liberationist principle of interpretation. Although it is still a decided minority position within formalized Protestant theological-moral discourse, this hermeneutic is influencing many, especially women. It calls upon Protestant theology and ethics to reformulate moral and religious judgments with special attention to concerns for women's well-being and in recognition that Christian teaching on gender, sexuality, and reproduction is embedded in a wider system of social control of women's lives. Acknowledging internal contradictions within scripture, a liberation hermeneutic refuses authority to culturally repressive male-supremacist readings of biblical texts and postscriptural theological interpretations. Like liberals, proponents of the emerging liberation hermeneutic represent a spectrum of convictions about what reasons might justify specific acts of abortion, but strongly concur that the Protestant Christian moral voice must actively advocate broad-based social change to enable women to shape their reproductive capacity. They contend that the moral evaluation of abortion must not be predicated on discourse that obscures women's full standing as moral agents or that fails to include realism about the historical pressures surrounding biological reproduction in women's lives. Among Protestants, only Unitarian/Universalists have adopted such a hermeneutic officially.

The contesting voices characterized here are most visible and most intense within Protestant Christian communities in the United States. However, analogous dynamics are at work in Protestant communities in other areas of the globe, as they are within Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and other religious communities. The struggle over which hermeneutical voice shall prevail in Protestant teaching on abortion remains unresolved.

beverly wildung harrison (1995)

SEE ALSO: Christianity, Bioethics in; Embryo and Fetus: Religious Perspectives; Feminism; Genetic Testing and Screening, Reproductive Genetic Testing; Human Dignity; Moral Status; Population Ethics: Religious Traditions, Protestant Perspectives; and other Abortion subentries


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Abortion: III. Religious Traditions: C. Protestant Perspectives

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