Review of Recent Talk: “Abortion Rights and Religion”

7 min read

Dylann Hanrahan ’25

Staff Writer

On Thursday, March 9, Trinity College held a discussion titled, “Abortion Rights and Religion,” led by Professor Tamsin Jones, Professor Mareike Koertner, and Rabbi Rachel Putterman. The table was clearly marked with a navy-blue sign in white bold letters, “Now is the time to share proudly; Reproductive Freedom is a Jewish Value.” 

Professor Tamsin Jones, the head of the Religious Studies Department at Trinity College, began the discussion with Christian views on abortion. I included the highlights from her discussion as there are a multitude of Christian sects with views on the topic. She explained that despite what we hear from the most vocal groups, Christians have widely diverse opinions about abortion, and many are not always against abortion. Following the most recent Supreme Court decision of Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade, the most anti-abortion vocal group of Christians are Evangelicals. Many suspect that Evangelicals base their beliefs on abortion in theology; in reality, the truth is much darker. 

As Professor Jones referenced, in 1968, Christianity Today orchestrated a conference with the Christian Medical Society on morality regarding abortion. They were not able to come to a concrete decision but released a statement that said abortion is necessary and permissible in certain circumstances. In 1971, Southern Baptists called for the legalization of abortion. So, what happened? Why the turn from apolitical to political? Professor Jones references “Frontline’s” documentary series, “God in America: Part 6: Of God and Caesar,” which she describes as capturing “a cynical moment in American political history.” Evangelicals essentially agreed to delivering a block of votes to the Republican Party if they supported what they wanted. In the 1970s, abortion became aligned with the Republican Party and was now something the Evangelicals could hide behind. This pivotal moment represents the fact that many Christian opinions on abortion, at least in the Evangelical context, are not theologically motivated. In my own research, I found that, according to Politico, “…Evangelicals had considered abortion a Catholic issue until the late 1970s, they expressed little interest in the matter; Falwell, by his own admission, did not preach his first anti-abortion sermon until February 26, 1978, more than five years after Roe.” Ironically, Evangelicals are public supporters of the death penalty but still make claims of being “pro-life.” 

Professor Jones then described the Catholic point of view, which is more consistently anti-abortion but not always. Many Catholics look to the early Christian author Tertullian (160- 240 CE) and his apologetic writing, Apologia 9. .1,6, to support their claims against abortion. Professor Jones highlights the major flaws in using Tertullian’s words to support this movement by cautioning that context is extremely important. Tertullian was living during a time period where Christians were being persecuted and combatting claims that they were killing babies and other outlandish threats all created to undermine the growing religion. Tertullian was writing in the apologetic style and was attempting to shut down accusations that Christians were not cherishing the unborn. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE) in Summa Theologica, makes it clear that the fetus is unformed matter until ensoulment. Both Tertullian and Thomas Aquinas believed that ensoulment occurred when the “quickening” happened, or when the expecting mother first feels the fetus move; therefore, termination of that matter prior to “quickening” is not murder. Professor Jones ended her section of the discussion with information that, despite claims from over-arching institutions, a poll concluded by the Pew Research Center found that 48% of practicing Catholics support abortion rights. 

Rabbi Rachel Putterman offered the Jewish perspective as an expert in Jewish Law as well as a former public interest lawyer. Rabbi Rachel explained that Jewish Law is a path, way of life, and a guide, “a dual ritualistic and ethical code of how to live.” Rabbi Rachel explained that when rumors began of Roe v. Wade being overturned, there was support for abortion remaining legal across all denominations of Judaism. During the discussion, we looked to Jewish legal sources on abortion, but, as Professor Jones reminded us, at the time these texts were written, there was no abortion as we know it today, so the texts must be read with context in mind. Rabbi Rachel referenced Exodus 21:22-25, which stands for the proposition that the fetus is not equal to that of the woman and, therefore, is not recognized with personhood. Rabbi Rachel additionally looked to Sanhedrin 72b:14, which discusses a woman’s life being endangered while giving birth, to further explain Jewish ideas of personhood. The text explains that Jewish Law would terminate the fetus to save the mother’s life until the head is emerging, then they attain personhood. The Committee for Jewish Law and Standards’ update on abortionin December 2021 stated, “Neither viability nor a woman’s right to choose is the basis of Jewish law on abortion, although they play a role only indirectly; what matters in Jewish law is the woman’s life and health, both physical and mental.” Rabbi Rachel remarked that mental health in this case is very broad and is certainly not limited. On June 24, 2022, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of Americacommented on the ruling in Dobbs. v. Jackson, “Jewish law prioritizes the life of the pregnant mother over the life of the fetus such that where the pregnancy critically endangers the physical health or mental health of the mother, an abortion may be authorized, if not mandated, by Halacha and should be available to all women irrespective of their economic status.”

Lastly, we heard from Professor Koertner, professor of Islam at Trinity College, on Islam’s perspective on abortion. Professor Koertner stated that there is no simple answer, and there is a diversity of opinions. She explained that it truly depends on what text you are looking at, but Muslims would look to the opinion of legal scholars in Islamic Law. Scripture in this case is not necessarily relevant, as fourteen centuries ago, when these texts were created, there was no abortion as we know it today. Professor Koertner explains that Muslims do get their ideas about ensoulment or beginning of life from the Qur’an 23:12-14, which loosely describes the beginning stages of life inside the womb. In the Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammed); Sahih al-Bukhari: 3036, Muhammed is recorded to have stated, “Each one of you is constituted in the womb of the mother for forty days, and then he becomes a clot of thick blood for a similar period, and then a piece of flesh for a similar period. Then Allah sends an angel who is ordered to write four things…Then the soul is breathed into him…” This marks personhood at just shy of seventeen weeks, but Professor Koertner reminded us that in Islamic Law legal personhood of a fetus or its rights is not about abortion but about inheritance rights and that it is a “case-by-case situation.” Today, most legal scholars and Muslims say that prior to 120 days abortion is permissible under certain circumstances, and any time after, it is permissible if the mother’s life is in danger. Professor Koertner explains that Muslims decide what is best based on what is most merciful, a decision to get an abortion would be rooted in what is most aligned with Allah’s mercy. Professor Koertner shared a poll orchestrated by the Institute of Social Policy and Understandingwhich found that 56% of American Muslims would like all abortion to be legal. 

Professor Koertner also brilliantly highlighted the dangers of making inaccurate comparisons of the Supreme Court’s latest rulings as “Sharia” and claims of Evangelicals being the “Texas Taliban.” This sort of rhetoric is harmful as it misrepresents the Muslim community as wholly oppressive and creates false stereotypes. In reality, the religious groups with such opinions would most mirror certain Christian groups. She additionally commented that the American Muslim community treads lightly in the political environment due to ongoing Islamophobia. When asked about the ongoing division between Christian groups in America regarding reproductive rights, Professor Tamsin Jones stated, “People are going to refuse to recognize one another as Christian anymore.” She additionally commented, “they are not in conversation, and that’s part of the problem.” 

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