Abortion and Theology

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in the Christian Century October 31, 1984, p. 1018 Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The pro-life hecklers and speech disrupters evidently are breeding backlash by satisfying their own need to lash. They are driving more people into the camp that finds abortion to be a reasonable choice, at least under certain conditions.

In the autumn of 1984, Kristin Luker’s study of the abortion controversy, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (University of California Press, 324 pp., $14.95), is especially relevant. By all but extremists on both sides of the issue, this book has come to be regarded as one of the most scrupulously fair and searching of the analyses of the debates positions and prospects. It would not surprise the author if, despite her best efforts, the book did not win the favor of those who are obsessive about the rightness of their causes. It is devoted to understanding their mentalities.

Luker, a San Diego sociologist, begins her last chapter by discussing the “Paradox of Success.” Since 1973 the movement that she agrees to call “pro-life” has made dramatic political gains, as the 1984 presidential campaign underscores. These successes occur against a background of paradox: “Not only is the American public generally sympathetic to abortion: it is apparently becoming more sympathetic all the time.” The pro-life hecklers and speech disrupters evidently are breeding backlash by satisfying their own need to lash. They are driving more people into the camp that finds abortion to be a reasonable choice, at least under certain conditions.

Luker cites polls, which she advises us to use, albeit warily. In 1962 only 10 per cent of the population supported what is now called “abortion on demand.” In 1980 the Gallup survey found that figure to have risen to 25 per cent, while an additional 53 per cent favored abortion in a very broad range of circumstances. By 1977 the National Opinion Research Center found that 90 per cent approved of abortion when the health of the mother was at risk; 83 per cent when pregnancy resulted from rape; and 83 per cent when there was likely to be fetal deformity. In contrast, true believers in the pro-life movement oppose abortion under any circumstances. (A CBS-New York Times poll in mid-September of this year found that only 28 per cent of those polled back a constitutional amendment banning all abortions; only 46 per cent of churchgoing and 21 per cent of non-churchgoing Catholics want such a ban.)

Despite the gap between those who want to outlaw abortion and the opinion of the majority, the abortion debate will neither go away nor, concludes Luker, become noted for “civility, calm, or reasoned discourse.” Yet, she cautiously predicts, the debate itself will gradually become less important to the public. Lest anyone think that this will result from the reasoned argument of the people she agrees to call “pro-choice,” she tells us that they actually don’t discourse much at all. Instead, they will gain because support for many kinds of abortion comes not so much through either passion or reason as through a change in lifestyles. More and more women are entering the work force, and those who find fulfillment outside the home have little sympathy for the needs and values of the home-centered, who make up the core and the mass of the women-dominated right-to-life movement.

Kristin Luker’s contribution has been to isolate and interview the activist leadership of both camps, and to limn their world views. Finding the pro-life activists is not hard. Because they see their way of life assaulted and feel on the defensive, they have organized with almost fanatic zeal. Luker measures their commitment, choosing to use a ten-hour-a-week involvement as a floor. “Most worked between thirty and forty hours a week on this issue.’’ On the other hand, the busy and preoccupied women who made up the more blurred core but larger mass of the pro-choice movement produced few such activists; Luker had to lower her floor to five hours per week In order to find enough who stood on it. Pro-life people, who are motivated to organize, work and vote can take advantage of this situation, for the genially apathetic pro-choice people are doing other things -- not including, unfortunately, spending time reasoning and thinking theologically about the issues pro-lifers will not let drop. The case for “discretionary” abortions keeps growing. “The future of the debate will belong to the side that most effectively captures the middle ground of opinion.’’

Pro-lifers have some assets in the struggle to capture public opinion. “Many Americans feel a deep uneasiness about abortion.” Yet the antiabortion camp makes few gains among this larger population because the activists ground their movement in “the deeply held belief that every embryo is a baby.” (Luker knows that the term “embryo” is not technically accurate, but she seeks depoliticized words; to call it either a fetus or a baby prejudices the case.) To win support for antiabortion laws, pro-life activists would have to compromise on this issue. They are not now convincing the huge majority that to take the life of an embryo in order to save the life of a mother is simple “murder,” as the bumper-stickers (but not most people in the reasoned, religious, Christian and even Catholic traditions before 1973) would have it. Few agree with one leader’s flip’ sounding dictum that two deaths are better than one murder.

Compromise would be delicate for pro-life supporters, even on this extreme, mother-saving issue; more than delicate, it would be devastating, for it would mean accepting one of two premises: “that embryos belong to a different moral order from people who have already been born or (more perniciously, from the pro-life point of view) that embryos are persons, but some persons (women) have more rights than others (embryos).” Some Catholics, using the doctrine of ‘‘indirect effect” or the “unjust aggressor,” are now seeking ways to compromise while still preserving the integrity of the cause and movement, as Luker explains in her final chapter.

While the author tries never to be shrill or doom-sounding, she does follow out a scenario that the politics of 1984 hint might be plausible. Pressure from the pro-life movement could bring about the passage of laws that the vast majority would not accept. The result would be something like the aftermath of prohibition. “The best the pro-life movement can hope for, should one of the current anti-abortion bills pass, is a modern form of the Prohibition experience.’’ Why? Because public opinion supporting certain kinds of abortion is close to unanimous; it was formed before the 1973 Supreme Court decision; and the majority that have come of sexual age since that year now take for granted that fertility decisions are to be made only by the individuals involved. Antiabortion laws would therefore result in legal chaos, in flouting the laws, possibly in a rise in organized crime, but hardly in the saving of maternal or embryonic life. Although pro-choice people can take little comfort from this scenario, they are not doing much to prevent it. They may, however, still win out despite pro-life activism, pressure and disruption, simply because more and more women’s lifestyles are changing. Although the abortion debate may gradually become more muted, “none of us should be too surprised if, by the turn of the century, technological changes were once again to make abortion a battleground for competing social, ethical, and symbolic values.”

That sentence ends the last chapter of a book whose previous eight sections are just as jarring and rich. To come to her final point, revealing a plague in both “pro” houses, Luker ranges widely. A historical chapter reviews the basic literature on the subject, finding that ever since the disagreements between the Pythagoreans and the Stoics, and all down through Christian history -- a history that has almost consistently disapproved of abortion – “the moral status of the embryo has always been ambiguous.” The pro-life movement would break with much of history, as Luker reads it, to end ambiguity and “fine tuning.” Although both sides appeal to facts, it is hard to deny Luker’s fair-minded assertion that “the abortion debate is not about facts, but how to weigh, measure, and assess facts.”

A second chapter gives her reading of how abortion got on the American agenda a century before Roe v. Wade made it urgent in 1973. Not women, not churches and clergy, but physicians put it there. Here was one realm where they could flaunt expertise as they defined their professional elites. Having forced the subject, once they had received the status and prestige of experts, physicians let the issue drop during a “century of silence” -- the title of Luker’s third chapter -- a silence interrupted by Roman Catholicism, which, in speaking out, was breaking with a part of its own past. Ever since the 12th century Decretals of Gratian, and certainly since Pope Gregory IX in 1234, Catholics had distinguished between animate and inanimate embryos, and between early and late abortions. After the work of Pius IX in 1869 the distinction disappeared. The result was “uniform and unconditional opposition to abortion, even to therapeutic abortion,” against the background of a theory of marriage and sexuality that the church did not succeed in selling to enough non-Catholics. Some would contend that it has been similarly unsuccessful in selling it to enough faithful Catholics. Still, Catholicism did witness during the century of silence.

Luker’s fourth chapter deals with reform attempts, her fifth with the invention of “right to abortion” efforts. In 1967 then-governor Ronald Reagan of California made history by signing into law the Beilenson Bill, which protected physicians who must make choices that might involve abortions. The result was unforeseen; few had thought that the bill would “challenge either the fact of [physician] management or the social status of abortion itself.” But it did. In 1968, following the new law, 5,018 abortions were performed; by 1971, 116,749 had occurred -- a gain of 2,000 per cent in four years. The search for “a middle way” had become “abortion on demand.” Medical control had become a legal fiction in a world where 99 per cent of those seeking abortions got them. The right-to-life movement had to be organized to make the countercase.

The chapter in which Luker’s patent best shows is her seventh, “World Views of the Activists.” I recommend to anyone who wants to make sense of the current scene a reading of her detailing of those competing, mutually exclusive, world views. According to Luker’s summary,

Women come to be pro-life and pro-choice activists as the end result of lives that center around different definitions of motherhood. They grow up with a belief about the nature of the embryo, so events in their lives lead them 10 believe that the embryo is a unique person, or a fetus; that people are intimately tied to their biological roles, or that these roles are but a minor part of life: that motherhood is the most important and satisfying role open to a woman, or that motherhood is only one of several roles, a burden when defined as the only role. These beliefs and values are rooted in the concrete circumstances of women’s lives -- their educations, incomes, occupations, and the different marital and family choices they have made along the way -- and they work simultaneously to shape these circumstances in turn. Values about the relative place of reason and faith, about the role of actively planning for lire versus learning to accept gracefully life’s unknowns, of the relative satisfactions inherent in work and family -- all of these factors place activists in a specific relationship to the larger world and give them a specific set of resources with which to confront that world. Pro-choice and pro-life activists live in different worlds, and the scope of their lives, as both adults and children, fortifies them in their belief that their own views on abortion are the more correct, more moral, and more reasonable. When added to this is the fact that should “the other side” win, one group of women will see the very real devaluation of their lives and life resources, it is not surprising that the abortion debate has generated so much heat and so little light [pp. 214-15].

Evidence supports her analysis. Those who seek civil peace while remaining both uneasy about “abortion on demand” and unable to be completely against abortion find a plague in the pro-life house. Its people are absolutist, self-righteous and disruptive in ways that drive more and more into opposing camps. They often seem unconcerned about other political consequences of their obsessive choice of one cause.

Without stressing it, however. Luker points out a plague in the pro-choice house that religiously and theologically concerned people ought to pay attention to. Whatever the religion of those in the “middle ground” the place where we find most Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews and even many evangelicals -- they cannot get by forever by arguing the theology of “choice” and “rights,” while refusing to sharpen their understandings of “values” about “life.” According to Luker, the religion of pro-choice activists, who presumably represent most mainline church-people on the abortion issue, is unrepresentative, thinned out, hardly visible or usable as a resource at all.

She finds that almost 80 per cent of the pro-life activists are Catholics, 9 per cent are Protestants, 5 per cent claim no religion and 1 per cent are Jewish. On the other hand, 63 per cent of the pro-choice activist women -- in sharp contrast to the national average -- say they have no religion, 22 per cent think of themselves as vaguely Protestant, 3 per cent are Jewish and 9 per cent have what they name a “personal’’ religion. Twenty per cent of the pro-choice activists were raised Catholic, 42 per cent Protestant, and 15 per cent Jewish, while only 58 per cent of the pro-life activists were raised Catholic, conversions having produced the 80 per cent affiliation figure. “Almost three-quarters of the pro-choice people interviewed said that formal religion was either unimportant or completely irrelevant to them;’’ only 25 per cent of them ever attend church, and then only occasionally. Pro-life figures are quite different.

Luker is content to leave things there, using church affiliation and religious interest as but two of the elements making up world views. But the pro-choice religious community cannot leave it there. Fully able to accept secular arguments and allies, on theological and tactical grounds, they will do their cause a disservice if they do not find better articulators of Christian and Jewish theological views -- and find some of them, at least, in the pews. On the evidence of books like this, it would seem that people like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who connect such other “pro-life” causes as opposition to nuclear weapons to their antiabortion stand, are consistent and compelling even to those who will not finally be compelled. But those who refuse to connect pro-choice with “life” in the case of what Luker calls embryos will continue to look inconsistent, apathetic and unwilling to produce theologians who will state their case. A thoughtful public may eventually decide that they are not merely unwilling but unable to make a theological case for their position, Since there are so many more people who support reproductive choice, they may succeed in foot-dragging the nation away from a prohibition-era scenario, and may thus win respect for law. They have a long way to go, however, to progress from mere foot-dragging to taking steps in support of law, and of life