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From the June, 2004
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The Ecumenical Moloch by Anne Barbeau Gardiner

The Ecumenical Moloch

The Latest Assault on the Unborn in the Name of the World’s Religions

by Anne Barbeau Gardiner

In his introduction to Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions, the editor, Daniel Maguire, makes the startling claim that no one can take away a woman’s right to abortion without engaging in religious persecution: “To criminalize a right that is grounded in the world’s major religions is criminal itself. It is also a form of religious persecution.” Do the essays prove that a right to abortion is both sacred and grounded in the traditions of the world’s major religions? (I am focusing on abortion, which Maguire calls the necessary “backup option” to contraception.)

They do not, though much effort and money went into the making of this book. It developed with the financial support of the Packard and Ford foundations and was published simultaneously in 24 cities by a world-class publisher, Oxford University Press. Fourteen authors from different religious backgrounds came together to provide the essays. The book identifies the authors by name only, giving the reader no idea with what authority they can claim to speak for the religious traditions they do.

Maguire frankly admits that the book is meant to “counter” the “anomalous and influential presence of the Vatican” at the United Nations, especially at the Cairo conference of 1994. (He is a professor of ethics at Marquette University, a Jesuit institution, and a member of the board of Catholics for a Free Choice.) He claims that it will show that almost all religions support “moral pluralism” on abortion, even Catholicism. But why are the world’s religions suddenly being dragooned into the service of abortion? Maguire explains that ours is far from being a “postreligious age,” because “major scientists” agree that the problems of the planet cannot be solved unless human beings acquire a “vision of the sacred.” Ah, well, if “major scientists” agree that religion is useful, let’s bring on religion.

Jews & Christians

The book begins with the three monotheistic religions. Speaking for the Jewish faith, Laurie Zoloth says that conservative rabbis have encouraged Jews to produce large families because Jews number only 0.2 percent of the world’s population and are threatened with extinction due to intermarriage and a decline in fertility. She cites a former Chief Rabbi of Britain lamenting that abortion has already deprived Israel of “over a million native-born citizens,” to which she responds that making up these “genocidal losses” by opposing abortion is neither “nuanced” nor “consistent” with Jewish tradition.

Zoloth concedes that all religious traditions take a “strong pronatalist position” and regard abortion as a “failure,” but she argues nevertheless that traditions must be “held in tension with the widespread praxis of abortion even in faith communities where the act is forbidden.” Note well that for her the contemporary practice of abortion establishes a new norm that must be “held in tension” with the cumulative and consistent traditions of the past. By this rule, a single generation can trump all the religious traditions handed down for 3,000 years. It would have surprised Moses to learn that as soon as a sin becomes widespread, it is thereby elevated to a norm to be “held in tension” with its opposite commandment delivered on Mount Sinai.

Zoloth realizes that Jewish tradition permitted abortion only in very limited circumstances, as the twelfth-century rabbi Maimonides allowed an abortion when the life of the mother was in danger. But she can only go back to 1770 to find a rabbi who permits abortion “in the case of a woman who has gotten pregnant out of wedlock” and only to the 1950s to find rabbis who allow abortions for mental anguish. Far from making abortion a sacred right grounded in ancient Judaism, then, this essay exposes it as a modern and even now only partial development.

In the second essay Christine Gudorf argues that there is no need to accept the Catholic ban on abortion, for since the ban on contraception was “rejected by the majority of Catholics around the world, and in many places by priests and bishops as well,” the same could happen to that ban on abortion. After all, in Catholicism, “the sense of the faithful carries some authority of its own, and must be consulted by ecclesial authorities.” The bishops are not the only source of authority. Whenever the bishops disagree with theologians, the laity can use “traditional Catholic moral probabilism,” that is, declare the teaching to be doubtful and uncertain and follow what they believe the best answer.

But there is a problem. Gudorf has to admit that Catholic theologians have not yet “developed” an opposition to the church’s ban on abortion. The reason is that the present pope has made abortion the test of orthodoxy, and those who question the teaching end up being forced “to recant on threat of expulsion.” But never mind, she adds, in a generation or two the church will surely allow Catholic women to have abortions “under some circumstances.” Does she prove that abortion is a sacred right grounded in ancient Catholic tradition? Not a whit.

Next, Gloria Albrecht explains that the “Protestant Principle” prevents us from turning “our own ideas and creations into idols.” So fundamentalists are not real Protestants, since they have embraced the “idolatry of familism—the belief that ‘saving’ the heterosexual, two-parent family solves most, if not all, of our social problems.” They even use sonograms in their “highly successful strategy” of personalizing the fetus from the earliest stages of his life. But the fact that they try to control change by opposing a “safe, surgical abortion as a form of birth control” means they have abandoned the Protestant “project” launched in the sixteenth century.

Albrecht is willing to concede that Luther and Calvin defended “the full humanity of the fetus from its earliest stage,” yet she insists that only the defenders of abortion continue in the “trajectory” of the Reformers by their continual openness to change. She admits that not till the 1970s did “major mainline Protestant denominations” endorse “not abortion per se, but the need for women to be able to exercise the freedom of their own consciences in their difficult decisions necessitated by unwanted pregnancies,” and that even then they still held “that the sacredness of life includes fetal life,” while not according that fetal life an “absolute value.” Her tenuous argument is far from proving there is a sacred right to abortion grounded in the Protestant principle.

Muslims, Hindus & Others

After her, Sa’diyya Shaikh argues that Muslim tradition is “flexible” on abortion, despite the fact that “many contemporary Muslim societies” are “rigid” due to fear of a “conspiracy by Western powers to limit the growth and power of the Muslim world.” It seems the legal records of classical Islam show a wide range of positions on abortion before the 120th day of the unborn’s life—when, it was believed, an angel breathed a spirit into him—from “unqualified” permission to abort the fetus to “categorical prohibition.” The justification offered by the laxer schools supposedly included pregnancy out of wedlock and unwillingness “to accept the responsibility of parenthood.” After the 120th day, abortion was “a criminal offense and prohibited by all Islamic legal schools” except where the mother’s life was at stake or the fetus was expected to be deformed.

The problem with this account is that we are not told how authoritative or how widely accepted was each one of these legal schools. (In fact, in Abortion: A Reader, an authority on medicine in the Islamic tradition says that “several medieval jurists” permitted abortion in the first four months, but “the majority opposed it because the fetus was ‘going to be ensouled’ and the coming into being of new life was not, therefore, a remote possibility but a ripe potentiality which could not be destroyed.” So then, the four legal schools Sa’diyya Shaikh mentions were not equally accepted. The argument is based on sleight of hand.)

And even if they were of equal authority, this author nowhere proves that there was a sacred right to abortion grounded in the classical legal sources of Islam. The word “permission” tells it all: Even for the more permissive schools, abortion was only a permitted evil, not a good sanctified by religion. So in the light of this essay, abortion is not a sacred right in Islam, the denial of which amounts to religious persecution.

In the book’s fifth essay, Sandhya Jain remarks that religion in India has such “plasticity” that it can vary according to the social realities of the day. Yet this author acknowledges that ancient Hindu tradition condemned abortion as a “heinous crime,” “the basest of sins,” and one of those “atrocious acts” subject to severe retribution. Hinduism’s “implacable aversion to abortion” was related to the belief that a soul entered in at conception, bringing its past karma with it, so that the embryo was never part of a woman’s body.

But while most teachers condemned abortion, even in the case of illegitimacy, the thing was still practiced, as shown in medical texts offering ways to commit them. Since 1971 India has provided women with abortion on demand. Sandhya Jain argues that dharma, the need to live according to the demands of the time, requires it. But the chief proof offered that this is not in contradiction with the substance of India’s ancient traditions is that there is a lack of opposition from the “Hindu religious fraternity,” who remain “quite vocal” on “cow slaughter.” Here again, no real evidence is provided that abortion is a sacred right grounded in the religion’s authorities and history.

In the sixth essay, Parichart Suwanbubbha contends that Thai Buddhism can “justify the deliberate choices of abortion.” The writer admits that in this tradition it is a precept to “abstain from killing” and that “the value of the conceptum is the same as that of a born person” because a soul is believed to enter at fertilization, yet claims that it can allow abortion because its morality is all about “intention.” Only an abortion done with a bad intention—for greed, anger, selfishness, or sex-selection—would result in severe retribution, such as grief, fear, disease, or a shortened life.

An abortion done with a good intention would be forgivable—the author compares it to a “venial sin” in Catholicism—provided it was balanced with good deeds. Only mothers know what “their real intentions” are and what their retribution will be. But the later the abortion and the “more effort” expended in killing the unborn, the “more serious” the retribution. Forgiveness may be sought from the dead child by prayers and by giving alms to hospitals and monks. In this essay, it appears that abortion in Thai Buddhism, however well-intentioned, has always been a “sin” and so not sacred nor grounded.

Neither is proof given in the next two essays that abortion was ever sacred among the Yorubas of West Africa or the American Indians. First, Funmi Togonu-Bickersteth explains how the Yorubas have always seen abortion as “dangerous, immoral, and shameful.” Abortions are nevertheless “prevalent” among them, but since Nigerian law forbids them, they are performed by “fake doctors or herbal doctors” who use traditional abortifacients. Mary C. Churchill argues that though “there is no word that equals abortion” in the native languages of American Indians, abortion “reflects traditional Native religious values” because “gender segregation” was practiced among them from time immemorial and women have always made “their own decisions” about their bodies. No proof is offered that native traditions saw the unborn child as part of the mother. In neither case is the argument made that abortion was sacred and grounded in the peoples’ religions.

China’s Case

The ninth and tenth essays examine Chinese religious traditions. First, Ping-Chen Hsiung speaks of the Late Imperial Period and how ancient Chinese men, while they were pronatalist, believed that it was better to have less frequent sexual intercourse for the sake of increased spiritual energy and longevity, as well as for greater pleasure and more successful reproduction. Men saved up, nurtured, and intensified their “male essence” through “carefully observed abstinence.” There was even a genre of poetry from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries that celebrated the “noble discipline” of men sleeping alone, especially after age forty.

This exemplary moderation limited family size. However, the author adds that Confucianism and Taoism hold “no inherent opposition to the notion of contraception or abortion.” He points to the infanticide of females in former times as parallel to the modern practice of “sex-selective abortions.” But note his phrase no inherent opposition: When he lets abortion in, it is only by the back door of this negative. This is a far cry from abortion being a sacred right in Chinese traditions.

Then Geling Shang observes that there has been little resistance in China to the one-child policy imposed by the Communist government, even though the policy seems “coercive and even violent” to Westerners. The essay explains that there was no “explicit code” against abortion in ancient times, because it was thought to occur only in the case of “disastrous or disgraceful” pregnancies. Performed secretly by midwives, not by official physicians, abortion was believed to incur “harmful, unhealthy, unnatural, and even shameful consequences.”

For at least three reasons, the “coercive campaign” to use abortion as “a supplemental means of birth control in the late 1960s” met with little resistance, the author argues. Traditional Chinese religion saw it as a relatively minor offense. In the Table of Merits and Errors from the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), for example, abortion was listed as a 300-point error, as compared to the 1,000-point error of murdering an adult. In this same Table, infanticide was a 1,000-point error, “tantamount to murder,” yet poor families still resorted to female infanticide. Chinese tradition expects the individual to sacrifice himself for the family, “so why not a fetus?” And finally, the traditional family in China regards children as “private property.”

The essay concludes that there might be a “humanistic” but not a “religious” objection to the coercion used by local officers in implementing China’s one-child policy. It is “traditional belief,” not Communist ideology, that makes abortion possible on this vast scale. (What about the fear of government reprisals?) In the end, however, Geling Shang has at best shown that abortion was an error in Chinese tradition: only a 300-point error, but an error, after all, not a sacred right.

Damage Control

The concluding essays of Sacred Rights seem designed for damage control—perhaps because the essays on world religions didn’t quite prove what they were meant to. So at the end of the book a sociologist named Anrudh Jain comes forward to say that most world religions originated at a time when the global population was small, so really, how can “laws and edicts articulated at that time” guide our behavior now? We have to be directed by “recent interpretations of old teachings.” This turns the project of Sacred Rights on its head. This is saying that even if abortion is not grounded on ancient religious traditions, so what? Those traditions are outdated, and we moderns must reinterpret them to suit the needs and knowledge of the present.

Then Jose Barzelatto and Elizabeth Dawson inform us that it doesn’t matter any more whether the world’s population expands or shrinks, because the concern now has “evolved” from “numbers” to the sexual rights of individuals. The debate has shifted “from numbers to values,” and therefore religions now have “an even more important role to play” than before. To show this, they trace the history of the several conferences on religion and abortion in the last decade that led to the making of this book.

Before the meeting of the UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994, the defenders of abortion convened a meeting in Belgium that included thirty scholars of the world’s major religious traditions. These scholars prepared a report for the NGO delegates to the forthcoming conference in Cairo, stating that “most religious traditions do not forbid abortion altogether” and that “no single faith may claim final moral authority in international discourse.” Further, an international meeting of physicians in Manila in 1996 recommended that abortion be demystified by an emphasis on the diversity of values. Besides all this, it was decided at still another meeting in Bogota, in 1998, to “ensure” that abortion was discussed in public “from a pluralistic perspective.”

In a final chapter, Arvind Sharma explains why Sacred Rights is so important and gives us at the same time a very subtle transvaluation of religion. Sacred Rights is a book that “rescues the study of religion” from both “traditionalists and modernists”—especially from modernists. They are the ones who see religious traditions as “uniformly opposed” to abortion, because they stereotype religion and make it a “metaphor” for “backwardness,” as if progress were only “progress from religion.”

But it is religion, not science, that “is more likely to be available as a means of knowledge” to ordinary people and to enable them “to sustain a coherent vision of the world over time.” In responding to the pressures of modern times, religions can be “innovative,” “inventive,” and even “creative,” while keeping the “quality,” though not the “content,” of their traditions. Just as people trust the scientific method when the content of science changes, so they will believe in the “method of a religion” despite a “variability” of the answers it has provided through time.

Sharma follows this discussion of religion in general with a paragraph on each of the religions represented in this book, to show how each provides a way for supporters of abortion to claim its authority. In Judaism, every text is open to a “fresh interpretation”; in Catholicism, “papal teaching and historical fact” can be divided; in Protestantism, there is individualism and a “demarcation between secular and sacred”; and in Islam, no interpretation of the Qu’ran is ever final, since it is only a human activity. Thus in these four religions, “revelation” can “go on revealing, as it were, continually.”

Then in Buddhism, “intentionality” can be extended “indefinitely”; in Hinduism, though the “main body” of its sacred literature “frowns upon abortion,” a minor Vedic text permits it in difficult cases; in Confucianism, the sacred is located “in the secular”; in Taoism, the two sides of sexuality are distinguished, “recreation and procreation”; and finally, in primal religions, “population and consumption” are kept “in exquisite balance.” For the Culture of Death, each of these religions has a selling point.

Modern Molochs

In antiquity, the Canaanites persuaded themselves that by sacrificing some of their children to Moloch they made their future more secure. They deluded themselves, for these abominable sacrifices were what ensured their expulsion from the land of milk and honey.

Sacred Rights is filled with the same delusion. The authors believe that only the holocaust of unborn children can secure our planet for the future. Like those ancient Canaanites, they speak of religion when they are endorsing violence as a “back-up option” to unrestrained sexuality. As Milton points out with delicious irony in Paradise Lost, the “lustful Orgies” of Chemos would take place right next to the very grove where children were sacrificed to Moloch, “lust hard by hate” (I.406–416). This is a perennial truth: Lust always requires violence.

In Greek mythology, the earth-born Giants uprooted Mount Ossa and piled it on Mount Pelion in a bold, impious attempt to scale the heavens and overthrow the gods. This was sheer carnality trying to raise itself to the level of divinity. In this book, likewise, fourteen authors have piled one religious tradition on top of another in an attempt to raise abortion to the heavens as a sacred right warranted by humanity’s ancient traditions about the divine. Surely this is as bold and impious an attempt as that of the Giants. And as doomed to fail.


Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita, Department of English, John Jay College, City University of New York. She is the author of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden?s The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press) and a regular reviewer for New Oxford Review.

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