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Religion and abortion

Many religions place legal or moral limitations on active abortion, for various theological reasons.



Judaism holds that the fetus is not yet a full human being, and thus killing a fetus is not murder. Abortion, when necessary, take place before the first 40 days, when the fetus is referred to "mere water". (Christians who agree with these Jewish views may refer to this idea as abortion before the "quickening" of the soul by God in the fetus.)

Jewish tradition is sensitive to the sanctity of life, and does not permit abortion on demand. However, it sanctions abortion under some circumstances because it does not regard the fetus as an autonomous person. This is based partly on the Tanakh (Exodus 21:22-23), which prescribes monetary damages when a person injures a pregnant woman and causing a miscarriage.

The Mishna (Ohalot 7:6) explicitly indicates that one is to abort a fetus if the continuation of pregnancy might imperil the life of the mother. Later authorities have differed as to how far we might go in defining the peril to the mother in order to justify abortion, and at what stage of gestation a fetus is considered having a soul.

Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism disapproves of abortion in any other circumstance than to save the mother's life, although a recent rabbinical authority holds the minority view that a child with known Tay-Sachs disease may be aborted due to its dismal prognosis. This view has not been accepted as of 2004 by most authorities. Psychiatric disease in the mother and rape as the cause of pregnancy are debated by the Acharonim (post-1550 authorities), but generally abortion is only performed if there is actual danger to the life of the mother.

Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism: the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards takes the view that an abortion is justifiable if a continuation of pregnancy might cause the mother severe physical or psychological harm, or when the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion as severely defective. The fetus is a life in the process of development, and the decision to abort should never be taken lightly.

Before reaching her final decision, the mother should consult with the father, other members of her family, her physician, her Rabbi and any other person who can help her in assessing the many grave legal and moral issues involved.

Sotah: uses of an abortifacient?

Numbers 5 describe the Sotah procedure for the trial by ordeal of women suspected of adultery that involves drinking a potion that supposedly induces miscarriage if the woman is guilty. The outcome of the trial would be barrenness if the woman had committed adultery; if she was not guilty, she would be able to bear children. This practice was discontinued after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., possibly because the potion required ingredients from the Temple's altar which was no longer available after the Temple's destruction. According to some contemporary Christian commentaries, including the Ryrie Study Bible and the NIV Study Bible, this trial would induce miscarriage if a guilty woman was pregnant when she submitted to it.

According to the Talmud, the promise that a woman not guilty of adultery would be able to bear children led some women to resort to it as a cure for infertility.


Early Christians lived under Roman law which permitted both abortion and infanticide. Given the generally ineffective or dangerous methods of abortion available at the time as well as the unavailability of prenatal screening, unwanted children were sometimes carried to term by Roman women, and abandoned to die of exposure. Unlike infanticide, to which the early Christians reacted with intervention and strongly opposed teaching, it is less certain how the earliest Christians regarded abortion, though all the extant texts imply opposition to abortion. Some argue that writings against infanticide are sometimes mistaken for anti-abortion teaching. Others believe that these works provide evidence that early Christians saw no difference in principle between abortion and infanticide. The four gospels offer no statements about abortion as such, and offer no new prohibitions.

Many early Christian writers condemned abortion more explicitly. The Didache, which some scholars date between 70 and 170, comments on the commandment, "you shall do nothing to any man that you would not wish to be done to yourself", by saying,

... Commit no murder, adultery, sodomy, fornication, or theft. Practise no magic, sorcery, abortion, or infanticide. ...

In the second century, Tertullian defended Christianity from accusations of practicing human sacrifice by writing,

How can we kill a man when we are those who say that all who use abortifacients are homicides, and will account to God for their abortions as for the killing of men? For the fetus in the womb is not an animal.

By the third century, abortion is commonly listed among the crimes of men, but some wonder whether Christians may have allowed exceptions to their teachings against it, though there do not appear to be any texts attesting to such exceptions. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa wrote that Christians believe that there is one principle of life from embryo to adulthood (as opposed to two, as assumed in Roman law). In the same century, John Chrysostom denounced married men who encouraged their prostitutes to get abortions, saying,

You do not let a harlot remain only a harlot, but make her a murderess as well.

The view that life begins at conception is a controversial one, about which each of the major denominations of Christianity has much to say.

However, as noted on the abortion main page, about 20% of all pregnancies end by natural miscarriage. This may be a difficult problem for the relatively recent view that human life as a person begins at conception, versus the more traditional view that it begins at quickening, i.e., the time that fetal movements are first felt by the mother. At the same time, the response can be made that the fact that a significant percentage of fetuses die in utero no more contradicts their personhood than the fact that, absent modern medicine, a significant percentage of already born children die before reaching adulthood would contradict the personhood of these children. It is worth noting that those pre-20th century Christians who held the view that human life as a person began at quickening were nonetheless generally opposed to abortion.


Christian writers from the first-century author of the Didache, to the late Pope Paul VI in his Humanae Vitae, to Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life") have maintained that the Bible forbids abortion. Although the Roman Catholic Church has always considered abortion a grave offense, it has at times punished the offense differently depending on the stage of pregnancy in which the abortion was preformed. For example, under Pope Gregory XIV excommunication was prescribed only for those aborting a "quickened" child. [1]

The Church today holds that "The first right of the human person is his life" and that life begins at fertilization. The equality of all human life is fundamental and complete, any discrimination is evil. Therefore, even when a mother's life appears jeopardized, choosing her life over another's is no less discrimination between two lives and no less evil. [2] Catholics who procure or participate in an abortion incur latae sententiae, or automatic excommunication under canon law. The Catholic Church also opposes contraception, and urges abstinence from sexual intercourse outside of marriage and natural family planning within marriage as alternatives.

Eastern Orthodox

While not all the Orthodox share Catholicism's objections to all contraception, they agree that life begins at conception, and that abortion (including the use of abortifacient contraception) is the taking of a human life. This view is reflected in their observance of the Feast of the Annunciation, when Jesus was conceived, and also of the feast of the conception of the Virgin Mary and the feast of the conception of John the Forerunner. Today, many Orthodox leaders have also spoken out against euthanasia and human cloning as related practices that reflect a devaluation of human life.


Protestant views on abortion vary considerably. In Evangelical churches, especially in the United States, the view is widely held that abortion is infanticide and therefore always wrong. Lately many Evangelical churches have encouraged their congregations to only vote pro-life.

The Bible contains several passages in both the Old and New Testament that imply that human life begins at conception, in which case, arguably, a ban on abortion follows logically. For instance, when Mary visits Elizabeth while pregnant with Jesus, Elizabeth exclaims "And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 1:43), which appears to imply that the author saw Jesus as already present in Mary's womb.

Few Protestant churches agree with the principle of 'abortion on demand'. More liberal protestants usually agree that there should be restrictions on abortion, and disagree over exactly what those restrictions should be. Anglican churches usually fall into this category.

For a more detailed examination of the Evangelical position on abortion, see Abortion and Evangelical Christians.

Latter Day Saints

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints takes a strong position against abortion, viewing it as the taking of a human life. Mormons are encouraged to consult the bishop of their ward for a blessing and prayer before making a decision, though bishops are discouraged from persuading the mother either way. Church-wide, abortion is viewed as acceptable only in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother or child is in danger.

The more liberal Community of Christ does not seem to take an official position on abortion.


Islam discourages abortion, but allows it as permissible under certain circumstances.


Hinduism teaches that abortion is a great crime and one of the worst sins. It is one of the six kinds of murder described in Hindu culture. Moreover, abortion thwarts a soul in its progress towards God, like any other act of violence. It teaches that a fetus is a living, conscious person deserving of protection. Hinduism has traditionally taught that a soul is reincarnated and enters the embryo at the time the embryo is conceived. In fact, one of the seven legendary immortals or Chiranjeevin in Hinduism, Ashwatthama, was cursed by Lord Krishna, avatar of Vishnu to immortality and eternal suffering partly for killing the fetus, later born as Parikshit, grandson of Arjuna when he was in his mother's womb. Parakashit, was born stillborn but was raised from the dead by Shri Krishna[3][4] [5].


Buddha advised against the taking of conscious life, as he identified such activity as a cause of suffering. Buddhism generally asserts that conscious life begins before birth. Therefore, many buddhists consider abortion to be equivalent to infanticide.


Lack of belief in God does not imply having a particular view on abortion. In general, atheists tend to be more socially liberal than many non-atheists, and thus statistically more atheists are likely to be pro-choice than not. Even so, there are still pro-life atheists, and there is nothing in atheism incompatible with a pro-life stance. Although many religious pro-life positions are based on belief in a soul, you can reject the existence of the soul and still oppose abortion. There are logical arguments either way:

  • Disallowing abortion: The life of a human body is seen as the entirety of a human being's existence. What with DNA shuffling and random minor mutations, every single human body that ever lived is unique from all others. To lose any of them prematurely is to lose the full flavor of that uniqueness. The only individuals who might be terminated early are those who prove themselves to be detrimental to others, like serial killers. Certainly the unborn mostly prove no such thing (only a small percentage threaten the lives of their mothers).
  • Allowing abortion: While much of the preceding remains completely true, a human being is much more than just a body. The human mind is the single most important characteristic of the species (assuming souls don't exist, as noted previously). Well, there is plenty of evidence the human mind does not exist when the human brain is insufficiently developed, or, later on in life, after it happens to become sufficiently damaged by any of a number of possible causes (not excluding various diseases). When no mind is present a human body is in essence little different from any other animal on Earth. It has no ability to claim any of the rights that most human minds claim, including the "right to life". Yes, abortion usually terminates the potential for existence of a human mind -- but to insist that a potential must be fulfilled is to spout nonsense, simply because anyone doing any such insisting has the potential to drown in a bathtub...


While not a religion per se, cynicism has a way of standing back and presenting an overview that is often missed by those too close to the point/counterpoint of a discussion. Thus, throughout History it can be noted that Religions have had several basic things in common. Each is a meme that competes for dominance. "Kill the unbelievers!" was practically a mantra for millenia. Next, those promoting a particular religion tend to personally benefit from those who have accepted that meme. And, the more people who accept the meme, the more the promoters benefit. Since it is known that memes learned in childhood tend to triumph over competing memes encountered later in life, it logically follows that the more children who can be exposed to a particular religion, the more the promoters of that religion will personally benefit. Finally, encouragement of baby-production (including discouraging abortion, masturbation, coitus interruptus, sodomy, homosexuality, etc.) means that more children will be available who can experience the meme, and grow up to be combatants in the endless war against competing memes. Not to mention that the thereby-expanding population will also need the lebensraum of all deceased unbelievers -- which of course is why Nazism also qualifies as a religion. All in all, Cynicism sees the entire abortion debate as just a smokescreen hiding the purely selfish motives of the promoters of religions, who expect to benefit from increased numbers of believers.

Nevertheless, even the most hardened cynic can recognize that some of the arguments presented by religions against abortion may some have objective merit. For example, regardless of the existence of religion, people still need to get along with each other. To declare certain human bodies to be non-persons, so that they can be guiltlessly killed, is to take a step down a slippery slope which has led to innumerable historical atrocities. The essence of that statement remains perfectly true even if certain human bodies are indeed non-persons!

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Last updated: 05-07-2005 07:09:30
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04