Abortion and Religion

Diverse Religious Traditions on the Morality of Abortion

Human Fetus
Human Fetus. Photo: Gandee Vasan/Getty

When religious positions on abortion are discussed, we usually hear how abortion is condemned and regarded as murder. Religious traditions are more pluralistic and varied than that, however, and even within those religions most publicly opposed to abortion, there are traditions which would permit abortion, even if only in limited circumstances. It's important to understand these traditions because not every religion regards abortion as a simplistic, black and white decision.

Roman Catholicism and Abortion

Roman Catholicism is popularly associated with a strict anti-abortion position, but this strictness only dates to Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii. Before this, there was much debate and disagreement on the issue. The Bible doesn’t condemn abortion and Church tradition rarely addresses it. Early church theologians generally allow abortion in the first 3 months and prior to quickening, when the soul supposedly entered the fetus. For a long time, the Vatican refused to issue a binding position.

Protestant Christianity and Abortion

Protestantism is perhaps one of the most diffuse and decentralized religious traditions in the world. There is almost nothing that isn’t true of some denomination somewhere. Vocal, vociferous opposition to abortion is common in Protestant circles but support for abortion rights is also common — it’s just not as loud. There is no single Protestant position on abortion, but Protestants who oppose abortion sometimes portray themselves as the only true Christians following will.

Judaism and Abortion

Ancient Judaism was naturally pro-natalist, but without a central authority dictating orthodox beliefs, there has been vigorous debate on abortion. The only scriptural mention of anything like an abortion does not treat it as murder. Jewish tradition allows for abortion for the sake of the mother because there is no soul in the first 40 days, and even in the latter stages of pregnancy, the fetus has a lower moral status than the mother.

In some cases, it may even be a mitzvah, or sacred duty.

Islam and Abortion

Many conservative Muslim theologians condemn abortion, but there is ample room in Islamic tradition for permitting it. Where Muslim teachings do allow for abortion, it is generally limited to the early stages of pregnancy and only on the condition that there are very good reasons for it — frivolous reasons are not allowed. Even later abortions may be permitted, but only if it can be described as the lesser evil — that is to say, if not having an abortion would lead to a worse situation, like the death of the mother.

Buddhism and Abortion

Buddhist belief in reincarnation leads to the belief that life begins at the moment of conception. This naturally inclines Buddhism against legalized abortion. Taking the life of any living thing is generally condemned in Buddhism, so of course killing a fetus would not meet with easy approval. There are, however, exceptions — there are different levels of life and not all life is equal. Abortion to save the life of the mother or if not done for selfish and hateful reasons, for example, is permissible.

Hinduism and Abortion

Most Hindu texts that mention abortion condemn it in no uncertain terms.

Because the fetus is endowed with divine spirit, abortion is treated as an especially heinous crime and sin. At the same time, though, there is strong evidence that abortion was widely practiced for centuries. This makes sense because if no one was doing it, why make a big deal out of condemning it? Today abortion is available pretty much on demand in India and there is little sense that it’s treated as shameful.

Sikhism and Abortion

Sikhs believe that life begins and conception and that life is the creative work of God. Therefore, in principle at least, the Sikh religion takes a very strong position against abortion as a sin. Despite this, abortion is common in the Sikh community in India; in fact, there are concerns about too many female fetuses being aborted, leading to too many male Sikhs.

Clearly, the theoretical anti-abortion stance of Sikhism is balanced by more practicality in real life.

Taoism, Confucianism, and Abortion

There is evidence that the Chinese practiced abortion in ancient times, and nothing in either Taoist or Confucian ethical codes explicitly forbids it. At the same time, though, it isn’t encouraged — it’s usually treated as a necessary evil, to be used as a last resort. Only rarely is it promoted, for example, if the health of the mother requires it. Because it’s not forbidden by any authority, the decision about when it’s necessary is left entirely in the hands of the parents.

Abortion, Religion, and Religious Tradition

Abortion is a serious ethical issue and it’s only natural that most major religions would have something to say on the issue, even if only indirectly. Opponents of abortion will be quick to point out those aspects of religious traditions which somehow condemn or prohibit abortion, but we must keep in mind the very obvious fact that abortion has been practiced in every society and for as far back as we have historical records. No matter how strong the condemnations of abortion have been, they haven’t stopped women from seeking them.

An absolute condemnation of abortion is an abstraction that cannot survive in the real world where pregnancy, birth, and raising children are difficult and dangerous prospects for women. As long as women bear children, women will be in situations where they sincerely believe that ending their pregnancy is the best of all possible options.

Religions have had to deal with this fact and being unable to eliminate abortion entirely, they have had to make room for cases when women have a legal right to obtain abortions.

Reviewing the diverse religious traditions above, we can find a great deal of agreement on when abortion might be permitted. Most religions agree that abortion is more permissible in the early stages of pregnancy than in the latter stages and that the economic and health interests of the mother generally outweigh whatever interests the fetus might have for being born.

Most religions don’t appear to regard abortion as murder because they don’t ascribe the exact same moral status to the fetus as they do to the mother — or even to a newborn infant. However much abortion might be treated as a sin and immoral, it still doesn’t generally rise the same level of immorality as killing an adult. This indicates that anti-choice activists today who argue so vociferously that abortion is murder and impermissible have adopted a position which is ahistorical and contrary to most religious traditions.

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Cline, Austin. "Abortion and Religion." ThoughtCo, Jun. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/basic-facts-about-agnosticism-and-agnostics-p2-248030. Cline, Austin. (2017, June 21). Abortion and Religion. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/basic-facts-about-agnosticism-and-agnostics-p2-248030 Cline, Austin. "Abortion and Religion." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/basic-facts-about-agnosticism-and-agnostics-p2-248030 (accessed December 14, 2017).