Vice Relies on Historical Revisionism to Make its Case

It has been said that a lie can make it all the way around the world while the truth is still getting its pants on. This is never more obvious than in articles like the one I’m writing about today. Leila Ettachfini wrote an article for Vice called “The Argument for Abortion as a Religious Right“. Ettachfini attempts to argue for abortion as a religious right, but does a pretty poor job of it. The article’s reasoning essentially boils down to “people of religious faiths differ on the question of abortion, so we ought to allow it so people can be free to exercise their religion”. Of course, this is extremely bad reasoning. No right is absolute, not even religious rights. If some religion believed it was their obligation to sacrifice children on the altar to Baal, that would obviously not be something American law would, or should, allow. If one’s religious belief will cause harm to another individual, that person has no right to expect to be able to perform that act. If fetuses are persons, not only is there no right to abortion simpliciter, there is also no religious right to abortion. If your religion teaches that abortion is permissible but fetuses are in fact human persons, then abortion cannot be permitted for any reason, even the exercise of one’s religion. Ettachfini’s argument is so weak that she all but concedes there is no religious argument for abortion given Christianity, just that Scripture never mentions abortion “specifically” and opinions have “changed with the times” among Christians (which is false, but I will address that in due time). Although there were a large number of Christians who opposed slavery, there were also some Christians who believed the Bible taught that slavery is permissible. Does Ettachfini believe we ought to allow slavery as a religious right, too?

Ettachfini mentions an article in Christianity Today, written by Bruce Waltke and published in 1968, in which he stated God does not consider a fetus to have a soul at any point in gestation, so the fetus is not reckoned as a soul, especially as compared to the mother. Now, I don’t have a Christianity Today subscription, so I couldn’t read the article and engage with Waltke’s reasoning. But Ettachfini says his statement wasn’t controversial at the time. But this is false. Christianity has opposed abortion since the beginning and no matter whether or not evangelicals supported abortion in 1968, the Catholic church has always opposed abortion. Really, it’s not even correct to say that evangelicals supported abortion. Protestants, just like Catholics, have traditionally opposed abortion. So Christian opposition did not rise with the religious right. It has always been there. It’s historical revisionism to claim otherwise.

She quotes a reverend who states that many religious people are pro-choice because of and not in spite of their religion. But the reverend is mistaken. If a religion teaches that abortion is immoral, then if someone makes arguments based on their religion for their pro-choice views they are wrong about what their religion teaches. You can’t say someone is pro-choice because of their religion if their religion teaches that abortion is immoral and/or essentially murder.

Now, I’m not going to defend the pro-life position as regards Jews and Muslims. A pro-life Jew and Muslim would be much more qualified to defend their pro-life views from their own faith than I would. But before I address Ettachfini’s statements about Christianity, I’ll address her points that don’t specifically pertain to the teachings of those religions.

She first states the “clearest argument” for abortion as a religious right is in the fact that Jews are the largest demographic that support abortion. But this is the argumentum ad populum fallacy. It doesn’t follow that because Jews are the largest demographic that support abortion, it is actually a religious right. Again, if the fetus is a person, then there is no right to abortion, religious or otherwise.

She quotes a Jewish rabbi who says that abortion is required under Jewish law if the pregnant woman’s pregnancy becomes life-threatening. But the vast majority of pro-life people believe that abortion is permissible if the woman’s life is in danger. Pointing to religions that accept abortion (even mandate it) in the case of a life-threatening pregnancy is misleading. Pro-life people don’t argue that a woman can’t have an abortion to save her life.[1] Showing that these religions consider abortion permissible under this case does nothing to bolster her argument. And if the Jewish religion considers the fetus a part of the mother, like her hand or foot, then so much the worse for Judaism as science has shown the fetus is a separate entity from the mother, not a part of her body. Christianity has led science for the past 2,000 years, so if the Jewish religion makes such a claim, I consider that a mark in favor of Christianity. Of course, it may be the case this isn’t how the Jewish religion sees it and the rabbi quoted is mistaken but again, that’s an argument for a proponent of that religion to make.

However, it seems clear Ettachfini is taking a rare exception, abortions to protect the mother’s life, and arguing that because of this rare exception, all abortions are permissible as a religious right. This simply doesn’t follow. And again, after all this talk about the exceptions, she mentions there is disagreement among Jews regarding abortions in all other cases. This only hurts her argument but she doesn’t seem to realize that. She just continues to quote one rabbi who says we need abortion so Jews can practice their faith. But if the “clearest argument” for abortion as a religious right is Jews are the largest demographic that supports abortion, but they only agree on abortion in the case of a life-threatening pregnancy, this shows that Ettachfini’s argument has holes big enough to fly a 747 through. At any rate, despite the disagreements, she doesn’t consider any of the arguments from Jews against the idea abortion is a religious right in the Jewish faith.

Ettachfini moves on to addressing Islam. She begins this section by stating that all Muslims disagree on whether abortion is even permissible at all, or if it is, under which circumstances. Not a very good start for her argument. She does say some views are more mainstream than others but isn’t very specific. She mentions a Hadith which says ensoulment happens 120 days after conception, but again, if this is the case then so much the better for Christianity. Christianity doesn’t specifically teach when ensoulment happens but it very strongly implies that it happens at conception (e.g. there are various Psalms which assume a continuity of identity from the time the psalmist was conceived). There are also good philosophical reasons to believe that ensoulment happens at conception. So again, since Christianity is consistent with the reality that ensoulment happens at conception, this only reinforces the truth of Christianity for me. And again, this is all assuming Ettachfini is correct. If she isn’t, a pro-life Muslim is free to present arguments against this article to show how Ettachfini is mistaken.

Finally Ettachfini arrives at Christianity, which is right in my wheelhouse. She starts off by saying pro-choice Christian voices have been drowned out because Catholicism and evangelicalism have dominated the conversation. But this just goes to show that Ettachfini can’t make the same claim about Christianity that she can about Judaism and Islam — the majority of Christians are pro-life. Abortion is not permissible under Christianity, and she can’t even claim it’s a religious right because the majority of Christians are pro-choice. In fact, using her logic, this shows abortion is not a religious right in Christianity because support for abortion is a minority position among Christians, though that doesn’t stop her from arguing we should allow it as a religious right, anyway.

She quotes Katey Zeh (I have a hard time calling her “reverend”), a Baptist minister and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights, as saying, “As a follower of Christianity, as a minister of Christianity…to me the core message is really about, first of all, love and compassion and care for the neighbor but also really eliminating systems of oppression no matter what kind they are.” If she really cares about compassion and care for the neighbor and eliminating systems of oppression, she would oppose abortion, not support it. Abortion kills a human child, one made in God’s image, before this child is even born. There is no greater system of oppression than one which allows a mother to kill her own child. And if she thinks fetuses are not made in God’s image, she’s deluding herself. This “pastor” speaks of compassion and care, and yet lacks any for the youngest members of our society.

Ettachfini says Christian popular attitudes towards abortion have changed with the ages. This just isn’t true. Christianity has opposed abortion from the very beginning. One of the earliest Christian documents not found in the Bible, The Didache, unequivocally condemns abortion and infanticide. This has never changed. Attitudes toward abortion in Christianity have not changed; liberal Christians who fear the opinions of man more than they fear God have rejected traditional Christian teachings on morality. But the church has remained steady in its opposition of murder, especially murder of the most innocent and vulnerable. Ettachfini quotes Rebecca Todd Peters from her book Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice as saying “abortion [was] not a major topic of concern in the church until the late twentieth century.” But again, this is just wrong. I have read Peters’ book, and I took her poor understanding of Christian doctrine and her historical revisionism to task in a review I wrote of her book.  One needs to only do a cursory glance at the history of Christian thought on abortion to know that her statement is false. As I said, The Didache condemns abortion in no uncertain terms. And even though ensoulment was believed to happen at quickening, Christian thinkers still opposed abortion because 1) They could be wrong and ensoulment could happen earlier, and 2) It was seen by Christian thinkers that aborting a fetus even before ensoulment happens was still destroying life and putting one in the place of God, whereas children are a blessing from God. So to Christian thinkers, abortion, even before ensoulment, was still seen as immoral because it was destroying a life that God was in process of creating. Of course, when science discovered in the mid-1800’s that life begins at fertilization, Christians, and doctors, opposed abortion from the very beginning because they believed in protecting all human life.

It should be clear that Ettachfini’s argument falls flat on its face. Her case that abortion is a religious right because the majority of religious people support it is false. She fails to make the distinction between life-saving and non-life saving abortions (and there is much debate over the latter among religious people), and her argument is a fallacious argumentum ad populum. And when it comes to Christianity, she all but concedes the majority of Christians do not support abortion, but even then, her argument that opposition to abortion is only a recent phenomenon in Christianity is just nonsense. All of that aside, there is no case from religious freedom for abortion if the fetus is a person. As there is no argument other than assertions from some holy texts that the fetus “does not have a soul”, these can safely be rejected. Science does not have to make a determination on the soul in order to oppose killing human beings. And Christianity absolutely does imply, if not teaches outright, that fetuses have souls. And again, even if it was consistent with all the major religions, if the fetus is a person, then the law cannot allow killing them for the purpose of religious freedom.

[1] To clarify, there are pro-life people who would argue that abortion is never necessary to save a woman’s life and any life-saving medical procedure they have is not considered an abortion. I consider this an argument over semantics. It is still an abortion procedure, even if it’s a life-saving one.