Links and Comments: Religion and Abortion

I’m fascinated by how the supposed verities of religion turn out to shift and sway with the times, especially with politics. The religious cherry-pick from scripture whatever they currently want to support, since it’s so easy to find in scripture support for virtually any position. I’ve mentioned before what is substantiated by a couple links here from recent weeks.

Someone linked this on Facebook. It’s from 2014, but still apt of course.

Politico: The Real Origins of the Religious Right, subtitled, “They’ll tell you it was abortion. Sorry, the historical record’s clear: It was segregation.”

Long story short: the religious right, in particular the Dixiecrat south, lost on civil rights in the mid-1960s. So they found a new cause to rally around, and chose abortion, even though to that point it had been a non-issue, even among Catholics (who could cite scripture defending the practice and dismissing the person-hood of the embryo). As of course ’60s evangelicals cited scripture to justify segregation.

One of the most durable myths in recent history is that the religious right, the coalition of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, emerged as a political movement in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion. The tale goes something like this: Evangelicals, who had been politically quiescent for decades, were so morally outraged by Roe that they resolved to organize in order to overturn it.

But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools. So much for the new abolitionism.


These points are echoed in Ezra Klein’s recent book Why We’re Polarized, which I’ve read and hope to summarize here. The issue is an example of his theme that politics was more nuanced in the ’60s, and since then has become more polarized. As he concludes on this matter, page 16:

Like on health care, it’s easy to see how a pro-choice voter could have found a home in the Republican Party of the 1970s, just as it’s easy to see how a pro-life voter could have found space among the Democrats. Today, however, there is no room for confusion. Democrats support Roe. Republicans oppose it. You can know almost nothing about politics and know that.


And here’s a piece from Scientific American about how commonplace abortion has been, without much moralistic angst, in history.

Abortion and Contraception in the Middle Ages, subtitled “Both were far more common than you might think.”

Today, conversations around abortion in modern Christianity tend to take as a given the longstanding moral, religious and legal prohibition of the practice. Stereotypes of medical knowledge in the ancient and medieval worlds sustain the misguided notion that abortive and contraceptive pharmaceuticals and surgeries could not have existed in the premodern past.

This could not be further from the truth.

While official legal and religious opinions condemned the practice, often citing the health of women, a wealth of medical treatises produced by and for wealthy Christian women across the Middle Ages betray a radically different history—one in which women had a host of pharmaceutical contraceptives, various practices for inducing miscarriages, and surgical procedures for the termination of pregnancies. When it came to saving a woman’s life, Christian physicians unhesitatingly recommended these procedures.

This is not to say that religious officials approved; they did not. Also this key comment: “Legally, we see abortions being intimately associated with a patriarchal control of lineage and reproduction.” This concern by men for their progeny has always been, it seems to me, a key motivation for the control of women and their bodies.


My own position is the issue is not a black and white one, as I discussed in this earlier post. Conservatives defend a simplex position: abortions always bad; life is precious from the moment of conception.

Reality is always more complex, in terms of the circumstances in which a woman might seek out an abortion, as Mayor Pete suggested. But the key to the controversy that almost no one mentions: an embryo is not a human being, any more than an acorn is an oak tree. To believe that an embryo is instantiated with life, with a “soul,” at the moment of conception, is magical thinking, in the service of simplex thinking.

There’s also this: a conception isn’t the creation of new life; it’s continuation of life. Both the egg and sperm are already alive before they join. *New* life hasn’t happened since the deep beginnings of the evolution of life on earth, which we can only speculate about, and of course depends on where you define the boundary between life and non-life.

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