February 18, 2017



Much has been written on the issue of abortion both in the popular press and in the philosophical literature (especially gender studies). Gender studies which includes examination of problems of gender, including conceptions of power relations in various social contexts, such as family, corporation, politics; evaluation of feminist philosophies and perspectives. It is this problems of gender that exhumes ethical debate and the problems of choice, in respect to the acceptability or permissibility of abortion. These debates focus on two distinct issues: (1) whether a human fetus has a right to life, and, if so, (2) whether the rights of the mother ever override the fetus’s right. Often the issues are discussed independently of each other. Discussion of the first issue, regarding a fetus’s right to life, usually draws on the concept of moral personhood.

A being is a morally significant person when it is a rights holder, and we are under moral obligation to that being. For example, I am a morally significant person and am entitled to the right to life, which others have a moral duty to acknowledge.The criterion of personhood selected has decisive implications on the morality of abortion. If personhood is conferred on a being at the moment of conception, then, all things considered, aborting a fetus is immoral. On the other hand, if we select a criterion such as self-awareness, then, all things considered, aborting a fetus is not immoral. The challenge is in providing reasons in support of one criterion over another. But even if we all could agree on a criterion of personhood, such as the moment of conception, the abortion debate would not be over. For, questions arise about whether the mother’s right of self-determination overrides the rights of the fetus. It is the mother’s body that is affected by the pregnancy, and it is her emotional and social life that will be drastically altered for at least the next nine months and beyond. These factors carry at least some weight. Other potentially overriding factors complicate the rights of the fetus, such as whether the pregnancy resulted from rape, or contraception failure. Arguments are required from both camps to establish the relative weight of these factors.

Historically, attitudes about abortion and the moral status of a fetus have fluctuated. Aristotle endorses abortion when writing that “when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation” (Politics, 7:16). The Hippocratic Oath states “Nor will I give a woman a pessary to procure abortion.” The Jewish Talmud, compiled around 600 CE, holds that “an embryo is a limb of its mother” (Hulin 58a) and for the first forty days after conception, the embryo is “simply water.” A fetus’s life is of equal importance to that of the mother’s only “once its head has emerged (from her body)”. Medieval theologians address the question of the moral status of a fetus by examining whether the fetus has a human soul. Aquinas held that the fetus only gradually acquires a human soul, and in the early stages of pregnancy is not technically human.

There are many-sided and complicated Religious Traditions on Abortion. 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, hence, it is important to understand these traditions because not every religion regards abortion as a simplistic, black and white decision. From the political/religious right comes the argument that the miracle of life is in God’s hands and God’s hands alone. From the political/religious left comes the argument that with the gift of life comes the God-given responsibility to care for that life, a responsibility that can only belong to the woman who carries the life within her own body. While opponents of abortion urge women with unwanted pregnancies to consider adoption rather than abortion others would not.

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 more debate on abortion. Early Church theologians by and large allow abortion in the first 3 months and prior to quickening, when the soul supposedly entered the foetus. For a long time, the Vatican declined to issue a binding position. It can be said that the Catholic Church says artificial birth control is a sin, but Catholics do not (from personal opinion). Likewise, the official positions held by various religions concerning abortion may not reflect the views of a number of their adherents.Protestantism is perhaps one of the most diffused and de-centralized religious traditions in the world. There is no single Protestant position on abortion, but Protestants who oppose abortion sometimes portray themselves as the only true Christians.

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.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.

Buddhist belief in reincarnation leads to a belief that life begins at the moment of conception. This naturally inclines Buddhism against allowing abortion. Taking the life of any living thing is generally condemned in Buddhism, so of course killing a foetus would not meet with easy approval. There are, however, exceptions for there are different levels of life and not all life is equal.Most Hindu texts that mention abortion condemn it in no uncertain terms. Because the foetus 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 is treated as shameful.Sikhs believe that life beings at 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.For Taoism and Confucianism, there is evidence that the Chinese practiced abortion in ancient times and nothing in either Taoist or Confucian ethical codes explicitly forbids it. Though treated as a necessary evil, it is rarely promoted, for example if the health of the mother requires it. Because it is not forbidden by any authority, the decision about when it is necessary is left entirely in the hands of the parents.

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 later stages and that the economic and health interests of the mother generally outweigh whatever interests the foetus might have for being born.

Having looked at the different views of certain religions, we can also summarily relate them thus:

Abortion is wrong under any circumstance: This view is in strict opposition to abortion.

Abortion is wrong unless the mother’s life is threatened: This position considers some exceptions. Some add that the rape of the mother justifies abortion.

Abortion is allowed up to a certain point of fetal development: This position (held by Sikhs and some Muslims, as well as the Supreme Court of the United States) considers a Middle ground.

Abortion is a decision best left up to the mother: This is a Pro-choice Position.

Get informed by reading more in John Ifeanyi Okoro, “Life is More Than Living: Metaphysical and Bioethical Challenges” Abuja; Nigeria: Ugwu Publishing and Co, 2011, pages 64 & 70 – 72 and

Jim Willis, “A to Z of World Religions: Places, Prophets, Saints and Seers.” Delhi; India: Jaico Publishing House, 2007, pages 4- 6.

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