Is Abortion Sacred?

Twenty years ago, when I was thirteen, I wrote an entry in my journal about abortion, which began, “I have this huge thing weighing on me.” That morning, in Bible class, which I’d attended every day since the first grade at an evangelical school, in Houston, my teacher had led us in an exercise called Agree/Disagree. He presented us with moral propositions, and we stood up and physically chose sides. “Abortion is always wrong,” he offered, and there was no disagreement. We all walked to the wall that meant “agree.”

Then I raised my hand and, according to my journal, said, “I think it is always morally wrong and absolutely murder, but if a woman is raped, I respect her right to get an abortion.” Also, I said, if a woman knew the child would face a terrible life, the child might be better off. “Dead?” the teacher asked. My classmates said I needed to go to the other side, and I did. “I felt guilty and guilty and guilty,” I wrote in my journal. “I didn’t feel like a Christian when I was on that side of the room. I felt terrible, actually. . . . But I still have that thought that if a woman was raped, she has her right. But that’s so strange—she has a right to kill what would one day be her child? That issue is irresolved in my mind and it will eat at me until I sort it out.”

I had always thought of abortion as it had been taught to me in school: it was a sin that irresponsible women committed to cover up another sin, having sex in a non-Christian manner. The moral universe was a stark battle of virtue and depravity, in which the only meaningful question about any possible action was whether or not it would be sanctioned in the eyes of God. Men were sinful, and the goodness of women was the essential bulwark against the corruption of the world. There was suffering built into this framework, but suffering was noble; justice would prevail, in the end, because God always provided for the faithful. It was these last tenets, prosperity-gospel principles that neatly erase the material causes of suffering in our history and our social policies—not only regarding abortion but so much else—which toppled for me first. By the time I went to college, I understood that I was pro-choice.

America is, in many ways, a deeply religious country—the only wealthy Western democracy in which more than half of the population claims to pray every day. (In Europe, the figure is twenty-two per cent.) Although seven out of ten American women who get abortions identify as Christian, the fight to make the procedure illegal is an almost entirely Christian phenomenon. Two-thirds of the national population and nearly ninety per cent of Congress affirm a tradition in which a teen-age girl continuing an unplanned pregnancy allowed for the salvation of the world, in which a corrupt government leader who demanded a Massacre of the Innocents almost killed the baby Jesus and damned us all in the process, and in which the Son of God entered the world as what the godless dare to call a “clump of cells.”

For centuries, most Christians believed that human personhood began months into the long course of pregnancy. It was only in the twentieth century that a dogmatic narrative, in which every pregnancy is an iteration of the same static story of creation, began both to shape American public policy and to occlude the reality of pregnancy as volatile and ambiguous—as a process in which creation and destruction run in tandem. This newer narrative helped to erase an instinctive, long-held understanding that pregnancy does not begin with the presence of a child, and only sometimes ends with one. Even within the course of the same pregnancy, a person and the fetus she carries can shift between the roles of lover and beloved, host and parasite, vessel and divinity, victim and murderer; each body is capable of extinguishing the other, although one cannot survive alone. There is no human relationship more complex, more morally unstable than this.

The idea that a fetus is not just a full human but a superior and kinglike one—a being whose survival is so paramount that another person can be legally compelled to accept harm, ruin, or death to insure it—is a recent invention. For most of history, women ended unwanted pregnancies as they needed to, taking herbal or plant-derived preparations on their own or with the help of female healers and midwives, who presided over all forms of treatment and care connected with pregnancy. They were likely enough to think that they were simply restoring their menstruation, treating a blockage of blood. Pregnancy was not confirmed until “quickening,” the point at which the pregnant person could feel fetal movement, a measurement that relied on her testimony. Then as now, there was often nothing that distinguished the result of an abortion—the body expelling fetal tissue—from a miscarriage.

Ancient records of abortifacient medicine are plentiful; ancient attempts to regulate abortion are rare. What regulations existed reflect concern with women’s behavior and marital propriety, not with fetal life. The Code of the Assura, from the eleventh century B.C.E., mandated death for married women who got abortions without consulting their husbands; when husbands beat their wives hard enough to make them miscarry, the punishment was a fine. The first known Roman prohibition on abortion dates to the second century and prescribes exile for a woman who ends her pregnancy, because “it might appear scandalous that she should be able to deny her husband of children without being punished.” Likewise, the early Christian Church opposed abortion not as an act of murder but because of its association with sexual sin. (The Bible offers ambiguous guidance on the question of when life begins: Genesis 2:7 arguably implies that it begins at first breath; Exodus 21:22-24 suggests that, in Old Testament law, a fetus was not considered a person; Jeremiah 1:5 describes God’s hand in creation even “before I formed you in the womb.” Nowhere does the Bible clearly and directly address abortion.) Augustine, in the fourth century, favored the idea that God endowed a fetus with a soul only after its body was formed—a point that Augustine placed, in line with Aristotelian tradition, somewhere between forty and eighty days into its development. “There cannot yet be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation when it is not formed in flesh, and so not yet endowed with sense,” he wrote. This was more or less the Church’s official position; it was affirmed eight centuries later by Thomas Aquinas.

In the early modern era, European attitudes began to change. The Black Death had dramatically lowered the continent’s population, and dealt a blow to most forms of economic activity; the Reformation had weakened the Church’s position as the essential intermediary between the layman and God. The social scientist Silvia Federici has argued, in her book “Caliban and the Witch,” that church and state waged deliberate campaigns to force women to give birth, in service of the emerging capitalist economy. “Starting in the mid-16th century, while Portuguese ships were returning from Africa with their first human cargoes, all the European governments began to impose the severest penalties against contraception, abortion, and infanticide,” Federici notes. Midwives and “wise women” were prosecuted for witchcraft, a catchall crime for deviancy from procreative sex. For the first time, male doctors began to control labor and delivery, and, Federici writes, “in the case of a medical emergency” they “prioritized the life of the fetus over that of the mother.” She goes on: “While in the Middle Ages women had been able to use various forms of contraceptives, and had exercised an undisputed control over the birthing process, from now on their wombs became public territory, controlled by men and the state.”

Martin Luther and John Calvin, the most influential figures of the Reformation, did not address abortion at any length. But Catholic doctrine started to shift, albeit slowly. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V labelled both abortion and contraception as homicide. This pronouncement was reversed three years later, by Pope Gregory XIV, who declared that abortion was only homicide if it took place after ensoulment, which he identified as occurring around twenty-four weeks into a pregnancy. Still, theologians continued to push the idea of embryonic humanity; in 1621, the physician Paolo Zacchia, an adviser to the Vatican, proclaimed that the soul was present from the moment of conception. Still, it was not until 1869 that Pope Pius IX affirmed this doctrine, proclaiming abortion at any point in pregnancy to be a sin punishable by excommunication.

When I found out I was pregnant, at the beginning of 2020, I wondered how the experience would change my understanding of life, of fetal personhood, of the morality of reproduction. It’s been years since I traded the echo chamber of evangelical Texas for the echo chamber of progressive Brooklyn, but I can still sometimes feel the old world view flickering, a photographic negative underneath my vision. I have come to believe that abortion should be universally accessible, regulated only by medical codes and ethics, and not by the criminal-justice system. Still, in passing moments, I can imagine upholding the idea that our sole task when it comes to protecting life is to end the practice of abortion; I can imagine that seeming profoundly moral and unbelievably urgent. I would only need to think of the fetus in total isolation—to imagine that it were not formed and contained by another body, and that body not formed and contained by a family, or a society, or a world.

As happens to many women, though, I became, if possible, more militant about the right to an abortion in the process of pregnancy, childbirth, and caregiving. It wasn’t just the difficult things that had this effect—the paralyzing back spasms, the ragged desperation of sleeplessness, the thundering doom that pervaded every cell in my body when I weaned my child. And it wasn’t just my newly visceral understanding of the anguish embedded in the facts of American family life. (A third of parents in one of the richest countries in the world struggle to afford diapers; in the first few months of the pandemic, as Jeff Bezos’s net worth rose by forty-eight billion dollars, sixteen per cent of households with children did not have enough to eat.) What multiplied my commitment to abortion were the beautiful things about motherhood: in particular, the way I felt able to love my baby fully and singularly because I had chosen to give my body and life over to her. I had not been forced by law to make another person with my flesh, or to tear that flesh open to bring her into the world; I hadn’t been driven by need to give that new person away to a stranger in the hope that she would never go to bed hungry. I had been able to choose this permanent rearrangement of my existence. That volition felt sacred.

Abortion is often talked about as a grave act that requires justification, but bringing a new life into the world felt, to me, like the decision that more clearly risked being a moral mistake. The debate about abortion in America is “rooted in the largely unacknowledged premise that continuing a pregnancy is a prima facie moral good,” the pro-choice Presbyterian minister Rebecca Todd Peters writes. But childbearing, Peters notes, is a morally weighted act, one that takes place in a world of limited and unequally distributed resources. Many people who get abortions—the majority of whom are poor women who already have children—understand this perfectly well. “We ought to take the decision to continue a pregnancy far more seriously than we do,” Peters writes.

I gave birth in the middle of a pandemic that previewed a future of cross-species viral transmission exacerbated by global warming, and during a summer when ten million acres on the West Coast burned. I knew that my child would not only live in this degrading world but contribute to that degradation. (“Every year, the average American emits enough carbon to melt ten thousand tons of ice in the Antarctic ice sheets,” David Wallace-Wells writes in his book “The Uninhabitable Earth.”) Just before COVID arrived, the science writer Meehan Crist published an essay in the London Review of Books titled “Is it OK to have a child?” (The title alludes to a question that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez once asked in a live stream, on Instagram.) Crist details the environmental damage that we are doing, and the costs for the planet and for us and for those who will come after. Then she turns the question on its head. The idea of choosing whether or not to have a child, she writes, is predicated on a fantasy of control that “quickly begins to dissipate when we acknowledge that the conditions for human flourishing are distributed so unevenly, and that, in an age of ecological catastrophe, we face a range of possible futures in which these conditions no longer reliably exist.”

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