“A simplistic pro-choice feminist assertion that the fetus is not a person and therefore has little to no value until birth or near birth is as phenomenologically and culturally myopic as a pro-life Christian assertion that a conceptus is an unborn baby. In part, the feminist willingness to reengage with the issue of fetal value emerges from the recognition that the more one attends to women’s experiences and the materiality of gestation, the harder it is to discount fetal significance.”

Margaret D. Kamitsuka’s Abortion and the Christian Tradition challenges two assumptions at the center of contemporary abortion debates, in particular the theological arguments being (re)constructed in conservative/traditionalist/evangelical/neo-patriarchalist interpretive communities. They are:

  1. The church’s historical stance toward abortion has always been that it is sinful and unethical to terminate fetal life; feminist and pro-choice theologies therefore constitute a departure from this historical position. From this perspective, the crime of the pro-choice position is two-fold, and might be summarized as follows: abortion is a sin because it is morally wrong to kill another human being; abortion is a sin because it does not conform to traditional church teaching on this subject. Actual ethical considerations are incidental to this latter point, which is about obedience.
  2. In pro-choice perspectives, acknowledging the rights, personhood, and divine image of the fetus runs counter to the political goal of granting women bodily autonomy and reproductive agency. Ethics in the pro-choice position relates to protecting the freedom of the mother (a full human) to exercise her will over and against the physiological intrusion imposed upon her by the fetus, who does not/cannot have political rights or full human status.

For Kamisuka, neither of these interpretive choices speak truthfully about the political, spiritual, economic, and emotional experience of becoming pregnant. In the first argument, fetal personhood is simply assumed, as is the interpretation that Christian theology has historically expressed an “unyielding condemnation of abortion and univocal view of the sanctity of fetal life” (17). Kamitsuka has understood the theoretical vulnerabilities of the pro-life position, as well as the contradictions that riddle the pro-choice position.

In the case of the former, Kamisuka uses the pro-life reliance on history to demonstrate that, in actual fact, the historical record does not straightforwardly condemn abortion on account of the sanctity of fetal life. Much is overlooked about the reasons why abortion was considered a sin when pro-life traditionalists reconstruct the theological past. Abortion was often understood as a sin necessitated by other precursory sins, namely the sin of adultery and having sex outside of marriage for non-procreative purposes (22-23). I also found Kamisuka’s discussion of penitential manuals quite interesting, as it clearly showed that abortion was understood within the local ecclesial contexts, and often took into account the socio-economic-conditions of the mother (30).

Kamituska is also concerned about the ethics of abortion not simply because it better coheres with women’s lived experiences, but also because not attending to the ethical questions of abortion actually lessens a woman’s “moral authority” (144). Indeed, a fully ethical subject is not content with partial definitions of justice that only benefit herself; she is not content to guarantee that justice is done only to her body, but also considers how her desires and decisions might grant or deny justice to others–whether human or not–outside herself. Therefore, Kamisuka both reclaims and reintegrates a robust ethical sensibility back into the pro-choice position, which secular feminists have not tended to prioritize. It is a desperately needed undertaking which she does deftly.

In the second half of the book, she argues that abortion is itself a decision made within the parameters of mothering (122), one that pregnant women (mothers) have the maternal authority to make. It is not an abdication of mothering, and the intrusion is not the fetus (as it often is for feminist legal theorists), but the patriarchal legislation forcing women to gestate and parent against their interests. I also find her concept of gestational hospitality quite lovely, as well as her conceptualization of pregnancy as an opportunity for mothers to show hospitality to fetal life, in the same spirit of the Good Samaritan (Chapter 6). For both mothers and the Good Samaritan, care and hospitality for the other is valued as a spiritual act, but remains one that can be freely chosen. Overall, this book bravely charts new territory for contemplating the complexity of questions at the heart of reproductive justice.

2 thoughts

  1. I would like to share two quotes with you. The first is from the Didache. This was a book written in the late First Century, or early Second Century, during the time of the Apostolic Church. The Didache was often given to new converts, and acted as the early Church version of Cliffsnotes. Here is the quote,

    “You shall not murder a child by abortion, nor kill a child at birth.”

    While the Didache doesn’t delve into Scriptural reasoning for why this rule was in place, it’s very clear that the early Church had a stricture against it. Nor does any part of the language imply that there are, or were, any form of exceptions allowed.

    The second quote I would like to share is a bit more recent. It is from an Embryology text,

    “There are different opinions of when an embryo becomes a human being because opinions are often affected by religious and personal views. The scientific answer is that the embryo is a human being from the time of fertilization because of its human chromosomal constitution. The zygote is the beginning of a developing human.” “Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects”, 10th Edition, Moore, Persaud, Torchia (2019)

    When you consider that the second quote states that the unborn are human beings, and Scripture states unequivocally that the unjustified taking of a human life is murder, then so too is abortion.

    1. Thanks for this… certainly there are Christian sources that prohibit women from having abortions, but I think Kamitsuka’s argument is that not all historical sources do.

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