Religion and abortion
Abortion, for the purpose of eliminating an unwanted child, and permanent sterilization are generally forbidden to Bahá'ís unless there is some medical reason for it. At present, Bahá'ís are encouraged to decide based on their own conscience in light of general guidance found in Bahá'í writings.
There is no single Buddhist view concerning abortion. Some traditional sources, including some Buddhist monastic codes, hold that life begins at conception, and that abortion, which would then involve the deliberate destruction of life, should be rejected. Complicating the issue is the Buddhist belief that "life is a continuum with no discernible starting point". Among Buddhists, there is no official or preferred viewpoint regarding abortion.
Inducing or otherwise causing an abortion is regarded as a serious matter in the monastic rules followed by both Theravada and Vajrayana monks; monks and nuns must be expelled for assisting a woman in procuring an abortion. Traditional sources do not recognize a distinction between early- and late-term abortion, but in Sri Lanka and Thailand the "moral stigma" associated with an abortion grows with the development of the foetus. While traditional sources do not seem to be aware of the possibility of abortion as relevant to the health of the mother, modern Buddhist teachers from many traditions – and abortion laws in many Buddhist countries – recognize a threat to the life or physical health of the mother as an acceptable justification for abortion as a practical matter, though it may still be seen as a deed with negative moral or karmic consequences.
There is scholarly disagreement on how early Christians felt about abortion, and no explicit prohibition of abortion in either the "Old Testament" or "New Testament" books of the Christian Bible. Some scholars have concluded that early Christians took a nuanced stance on what is now called abortion, and that at different times, and in separate places, early Christians have taken different stances. Other scholars have concluded that early Christians considered abortion a sin at all stages; although there is disagreement over their thoughts on what type of sin it was and how grave a sin it was held to be, it was seen as at least as grave as sexual immorality. Some early Christians believed that the embryo did not have a soul from conception, and consequently, opinion was divided as to whether or not early abortion was murder or ethically equivalent to murder.
Early church councils punished women for abortions that were combined with other sexual crimes, as well as makers of abortifacient drugs, but, like some early Church Fathers such as Basil of Caesarea, did not make distinction between "formed" and "unformed" foetuses. While Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor held that human life already began at conception, Augustine of Hippo affirmed Aristotle's concepts of ensoulment occurring some time after conception, after which point abortion was to be considered homicide, while still maintaining the condemnation of abortion at any time from conception onward. Aquinas reiterated Aristotle's views of successive souls: vegetative, animal, and rational. This would be the Catholic Church's position until 1869, when the limitation of automatic excommunication to abortion of a formed foetus was removed, a change that has been interpreted as an implicit declaration that conception was the moment of ensoulment. Most early penitentials imposed equal penances for abortion whether early-term or late-term, but later penitentials in the Middle Ages normally distinguished between the two, imposing heavier penances for late-term abortions and a less severe penance was imposed for the sin of abortion "before [the foetus] has life".
Contemporary Christian denominations have nuanced positions, thoughts, and teachings about abortion, especially in extenuating circumstances. The Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church Oriental Orthodoxy, and most evangelical Protestants oppose deliberate abortion as immoral, while allowing what is sometimes called indirect abortion, namely, an action that does not seek the death of the foetus as an end or a means, but that is followed by the death as a side effect. Some mainline Protestant denominations such as the Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, among others, are more permissive of abortion. More generally, some Christian denominations can be considered pro-life, while others may be considered pro-choice. Additionally, there are sizable minorities in some denominations that disagree with their denomination's stance on abortion.
Classical Hindu texts strongly condemn abortion. The British Broadcasting Corporation writes, "When considering abortion, the Hindu way is to choose the action that will do least harm to all involved: the mother and father, the foetus and society." The BBC goes on to state, "In practice, however, abortion is practiced in Hindu culture in India, because the religious ban on abortion is sometimes overruled by the cultural preference for sons. This can lead to abortion to prevent the birth of girl babies, which is called 'female foeticide'." Hindu scholars and women's rights advocates have supported bans on sex-selective abortions. Some Hindus support abortion in cases where the mother's life is at imminent risk or when the foetus has a life-threatening developmental anomaly.
Some Hindu theologians and Brahma Kumaris believe personhood begins at three months and develops through to five months of gestation, possibly implying permitting abortion up to the third month and considering any abortion past the third month to be destruction of the soul's current incarnate body.
Although there are different opinions among Islamic scholars about when life begins, and when abortion is permissible, most agree that the termination of a pregnancy after 120 days - the point at which, in Islam, a foetus is thought to become a living soul - is not permissible. Several Islamic thinkers contend that in cases prior to four months of gestation, abortion should be permissible only in instances in which the mother's life is in danger or in cases of rape.
Some schools of Muslim law permit abortion in the first sixteen weeks of pregnancy, whereas others only allow it in the first seven weeks of pregnancy. The further along the pregnancy has progressed, the greater the wrong. The Qur'an does not specifically mention abortion, but it skirts the issue by condemning intentional murder. All schools accept abortion as a means to save the mother's life.
Orthodox Jewish teaching allows abortion if necessary to safeguard the life of the pregnant woman. While the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements openly advocate for the right to a safe and accessible abortion, the Orthodox movement is less unified on the issue. Many Orthodox Jews oppose abortion, except when it is necessary to save a woman's life (or, according to some, the woman's health).
In Judaism, views on abortion draw primarily upon the legal and ethical teachings of the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, the case-by-case decisions of responsa, and other rabbinic literature. Generally speaking, Orthodox Jews oppose abortion after the 40th day, with health-related exceptions, and reform Jews tend to allow greater latitude for abortion. There are rulings that often appear conflicting on the matter. The Talmud states that a foetus is not legally a person until it is delivered. The Torah contains the law that, "When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman, and a miscarriage results, but no other misfortune, the one responsible shall be fined...but if other misfortune ensues, the penalty shall be life (nefesh) for life (nefesh)." (Exodus 21:22-25). That is, causing a woman to miscarry is a crime, but not a capital crime, because the fetus is not considered a person.
Jeremiah 1:5 states that, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born, I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." For some, this verse, while talking specifically about Jeremiah, is an indication that God is aware of the identity of "developing unborn human beings even before they enter the womb", or that for everyone, God has a plan that abortion might be seen as frustrating. Others say that this interpretation is incorrect, and that the verse is not related to personhood or abortion, as Jeremiah is asserting his prophetic status as distinct and special.
The Hebrew Bible has a few references to abortion; Exodus 21:22-25 addresses miscarriage by way of another's actions, which it describes as a non-capital offense punishable through a fine. The Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible describes the Ordeal of the bitter water (sotah) to be administered by a priest to a wife whose husband thinks she was unfaithful. Some scholars interpret the text as involving an abortifacient potion or otherwise that induces a miscarriage if the woman is pregnant with another man's child. Rabbinical scholar Arnold Ehrlich interprets the ordeal such that it ends either harmlessly if the woman is faithful, or with an induced abortion: "the embryo falls".
Although the Sikh code of conduct does not deal directly with abortion (or indeed many other bioethical issues), it is generally forbidden in Sikhism because it is said to interfere with the creative work of God. Despite this theoretical viewpoint, abortion is not uncommon among the Sikh community in India, and there is growing concern that female foetuses are being aborted because of the cultural preference for sons.
The Unitarian Universalist Church strongly supports abortion rights. In 1978, the Unitarian Universalist Association passed a resolution that declared, "...[the] right to choice on contraception and abortion are important aspects of the right of privacy, respect for human life, and freedom of conscience of women and their families". The Association had released earlier statements in 1963 and 1968 favoring the reform of restrictive abortion laws.
Although views differ, most Wiccans consider abortion to be a spiritual decision that should be free from interference by the state or politicians.
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- See for instance Michèle Goyens, Pieter de Leemans, An Smets (editors), Science Translated: Latin and Vernacular Translations of Scientific Treatises in Medieval Europe (Leuven University Press 2008 ISBN 978-90-5867-671-9), pp. 390-396 Patrick J. Geary, Readings in Medieval History (University of Toronto Press 2010 ISBN 978-1-4426-0116-1), Vol. 1, p. 255, Karin E. Olsen, Antonina Harbus, Tette Hofstra, Germanic Texts and Latin Models (Peeters 2001 ISBN 978-90-429-0985-4), pp. 84-85 and John Thomas McNeill, Helena M. Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance (Hippocrene Books 1965 ISBN 978-0-374-95548-9)
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