Interrupting Pregnancy: Deciding between Life and Life
National Assembly debates over whether to eliminate the right to therapeutic abortion from the Penal Code repeatedly get announced then postponed for political reasons.
Some women hold workshops, meetings and marches with banners insisting
“My life is worth more,” while others march in defense of “the unborn.”
The following text, originally titled “Is interrupting a pregnancy a sin?
How to decide between God and conscience” has been read,
reflected on and debated by women’s organizations
all over Nicaragua in recent months.
María López Vigil
Abortion is a vital and controversial topic. It’s always important to include the religious perspective when we think, speak, debate and make proposals about it, but if we limit that perspective to the institutional one, we won’t get very far. Women’s doubts won’t be resolved, their consciences won’t be freed, and they won’t be well informed. The lay perspective is necessary in this debate. Interference by fundamentalist religious groups in public sexual and reproductive rights policies should be denounced. While in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America our Constitutions define our governments as secular, it isn’t true in practice or in our public policies because we don’t have secular societies or consciences. To educate the lay conscience, traditional religious ideas around the issues of both abortion and sexuality need to be clarified.
Do religious beliefs always defend life?Religious beliefs, Christian ones included, can be and have been in support of life, human rights, development, democracy, justice, peace and the common good, but not always. It’s taken for granted that religious beliefs are always good, that people who embrace them and say they believe in God are principled, good people. However, even a quick review of human history shows that torture has been practiced, wars begun, nations invaded and murders and robberies committed in the name of God and for reasons of religious belief, causing suffering to untold numbers of people.
A starting point for reflection on abortion from a religious perspective is to understand clearly that not everything religious should be assumed to be good, constructive and positive, that religious beliefs and actions do not always guarantee life, development, liberty, peace and human rights. Arguments in favor of abortion are often discounted by saying that the people who offer the service or defend women’s right to interrupt their pregnancy “are not religious.” We’re encouraged to think that they’re always atheists. Women are intimidated into opposing abortion by “religious” arguments.
Life and liberty: Two fundamental Facing any abortion, our thought process always focuses on two values: to live and to choose, and on two fundamental human rights: the right to life and the right to liberty. We’re accustomed to associating these two rights and these two values with God.
rights we associate with God
God wants life and not death. God wants freedom and not slavery. We can’t forget that people kill and enslave others in the name of God. Do we always understand God to be the God of life and freedom? Not always. It depends on the idea of God in our minds and our hearts, the idea we were taught and learned. It’s one thing to think of God as a powerful judge on whom we depend completely and who spies on our actions and thoughts in order to punish us, and quite another to conceive of God as an affectionate mother, who celebrates our happiness and trusts our thoughts, desires and decisions. That’s why it’s so important to reflect on our idea of God and decide if it needs to be changed.
The dilemma isn’t between life and death,Self-styled “Pro-Life” groups try to frame abortion debates as a division between them and “Pro-Abortion” groups. They define all abortion as a crime of murder, trying to create the belief that there are groups of women—feminists—who belong to a “culture of death” and promote, even celebrate, the mass practice of abortion. Defining the dilemma as between life and death helps guilt-trip and frighten women. The reality is that any woman who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy and a possible abortion is always up against a dilemma.
but between life and bare existence
Existing is not the same as living. When Jesus of Nazareth explained “God’s plan,” he said: “May you live, and live in abundance.” That live in abundance is what we call today “quality of life”: health, education, affection, basic needs, emotional and material security, opportunities. All that is the difference between living and existing. Our personal reflection and debate about abortion must always be situated in this choice between life and bare existence.
What life awaits someone born with a congenital illness if the parents already have numerous children and no resources to meet that child’s most basic needs? What risk to her own life does a woman with a chronic illness or other serious health problems run in her pregnancy? What is the psychological risk to a woman whose pregnancy is unwanted or forced, and what will it mean for her emotionally for the rest of her life? What does the violent beginning of this pregnancy mean for the future of this new life? What life opportunities—study, work, relationships—are cut off for a pregnant teenager? What violent or abusive beginning does the new life in her womb have? Each case is different and requires a different reflection process. We should always reflect in the name of life and with the aspiration to live in abundance.
God wants us to be responsibleWe are responsible for the life and freedom God gave us. We can’t live responsibly if we feel and act submissive to and dependent on “God’s will,” believing that others, supposedly with God’s authority, will explain it to us.
for our life and our freedom
We cannot live responsibly if we believe that everything that happens to us and in the world is “God’s test,” which we have to accept, or a “destiny” we have to fulfill because everything “is already written.” Thinking that way makes us irresponsible, insensitive, fatalistic. We can’t live responsibly if we always mortgage our thoughts and decision-making to religious authorities.
In order to decide responsibly about life—ours and that of others—and be responsible with our freedom, we need to talk about abortion openly and from different perspectives. We should listen, not let ourselves be led by others’ ideas or dominated by fear or guilt. Being responsible assumes having autonomy, thinking our own thoughts and learning how to make choices. We also have to have enough information and awareness to be able to act not only freely but responsibly. Often, when we have to make an important decision, we say,” Let your conscience be your guide”
Conscience is that voice inside that serves as our guide to what’s good and what’s bad, what causes hurt and what frees us, what each new situation requires of us. Often we make decisions based on what our conscience tells us, but without much reflection.
It’s not like that in the case of abortion: interrupting a pregnancy is always a decision that requires personal reflection, reflection as a couple, information from health professionals. It requires freedom, not letting ourselves be influenced by others’ rules, requirements or beliefs. Conscience is created by informing oneself. Conscience is developed by using it.
Vital questions are at stakeBecause it always implies a dilemma between life and existence, and because life and liberty are always at stake, each unwanted pregnancy and each decision to interrupt it or not is always surrounded by essential questions: what is the meaning of human life, what is our responsibility to a life at risk, where does my freedom end and another’s begin...?
None of these questions has an easy answer. We must respect the answers each woman gives to her own situation. No woman should be labeled as pro-abortion, judged or condemned when defending the interruption of her pregnancy. Women are completely capable of deciding according to their conscience. Abortion is a vital issue; to approach it lightly or put forward only legal parameters and solutions, or those of institutions or public politics, isn’t good enough.
When does life become human?To move toward a responsible decision, we should learn to feel like a link in this long, long chain of life’s evolution on our planet. We should feel that our life is interrelated to all other innumerable forms of life to which we are linked and that we should respect.
When does a fetus become a human being? Science gives us the answer. Feeling, moving or breathing is not what makes a fetus a being human. Animals, even plants, feel, move and breathe. What makes a fetus human is also not the human “form” it takes on during its development. When we see an ultrasound, the fetus looks like a miniature person. But that’s just in appearance.
Human beings’ characteristic, specific feature is our brain, and more specifically its gray cortex, with its billions of neurons. With trillions and trillions of possible connections between them, neurons allow us to think, to know who we are, to choose, plan, transform reality, dream, love, decide, create and know that we will die. All this is what makes us human. The normal lines of the human brain don’t appear in the fetus until close to the 30th week of pregnancy, the beginning of the seventh month. An embryo and a fetus are potential, in-process forms of human life, a seed with the capacity to become a tree. But they aren’t a tree. Do we have the obligation to turn each seed into a tree?
Science and religion debate over life. But there should be no contradiction between the two because they play on different courts. On its court, science responds to how and why. It explains. Religion, meanwhile, tries to respond to what for. It seeks the meaning of life.
When does human life begin to have a “soul”?If the scientific question is when human life begins, the religious question is when God infuses a soul into the body of a human being. This question has diverse answers in different religions and has even had a variety of answers during the history of Christian theology. There will never be a way to prove the existence of a soul much less the moment in which the human being “receives” it. There have been diverse opinions and much debate in the different religions, including Christianity. The discussion is still open, and thus there are many religious and Christian opinions about abortion.
Because of the symbolic importance in the Bible of the number 40, there was a time in our Western Christian culture when it was thought that the soul started to exist in the human body 40 days after the ovum-spermatozoid fusion. The more misogynist theologians specified that if the fetus was female, the soul did not arrive until the 80th day. When microscopes were first used, it was thought that the soul was in the sperm because they moved and appeared to have the shape of “little men.” It was also thought that the soul existed once the fetus had “human form.” Or when the mother felt its movements. Or that God infused the soul at the moment of birth.
Scientific advances led many Christian theologians to believe that there is no soul until the fetus has formed the gray cortex of its brain and has attained the ability to be viable outside of the mother’s womb. Some theologians propose that the soul is not present until there is biological proof of “cerebral life,” just as we currently think of death as “cerebral death,” occurring when the brain ceases to function, even if other organs of the body are still functioning.
Only for about a century and a half has the Vatican imposed in the Catholic Church the idea that the soul exists from the instant of fertilization or ovum-spermatozoid fusion, the moment called “conception.” Various evangelical churches have assumed this idea as well. Historically, there have been been much more flexible positions in Protestant denominations, which have as a fundamental principle the freedom of conscience above dogmatic interpretation.
In the mid-19th century, after the Pope proclaimed the Catholic dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, which affirms that Mary was free of original sin at the precise moment of conception, the idea began that if that was true, it was because there was a person and a soul in her “conception.” Therefore, that first fertilized cell is already a human person from the instant the sperm penetrates the egg, and interrupting its development is “murder.”
What do non-Christian religions All religions have reflected on abortion and have mandates about the interruption of pregnancy. In looking for the meaning of life, they all provide guidelines for what one should do to respect, develop and preserve life. All religions understand that life is sacred, a gift from God or the gods.
say about abortion?
It’s important to understand that virtually all living religions consider women as under men’s power even today. All teach that women are inferior to men and view women’s sexuality as negative or dangerous, always needing to be controlled by men, whether fathers or husbands. This is because at least four thousand years ago, the idea was imposed on humanity, very violently, that “masculine” represents divinity and “feminine” is not divine.
The more orthodox currents in Judaism oppose abortion, but accept it whenever the woman’s life and health is in danger. In all currents, the mother always has priority over the fetus, which isn’t considered a full person with rights until the moment of birth. Abortion is most frequently left in the woman’s hands, in consultation with the rabbi.
In Islam there are diverse currents, ranging from strict prohibition of abortion to unconditional permission. The most commonly accepted idea is that the fetus begins to have a “soul” about 120 days after gestation, and for this reason abortion is generally permitted before that point. The health and life of the mother are always priorities, even in the strictest currents. Hinduism considers human life to be in perpetual evolution, always favors the woman’s life and health and has a broad perspective on the interruption of pregnancy.
In the diverse schools of Buddhism it is essential to respect all life and reject all violence. The intention with which the person acts and each person’s self-knowledge are also essential. From these perspectives, there is a great flexibility toward abortion, and consideration of the variable circumstances in which the decision is made.
What does the Bible say about abortion?Christians—whether Catholics, Protestants or members of any of the numerous evangelical denominations—base many of their religious ideas on the Bible. It’s interesting to know that there’s only one mention of abortion in all 72 books of the Bible, and it’s in a verse referring to judicial law. It appears in the book of Exodus, the second book of the Old Testament: “If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she has a miscarriage, but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot….” (Exodus 21:22-24).
We find no reference in the books of the New Testament, even in the gospels, the letters of Paul or those of the other apostles, which are full of rules of conduct. Jesus of Nazareth taught nothing about abortion, nor did he mention it. It is important that Jesus, who defended children, people with leprosy or disabilities and those whose life was at risk, who denounced so forcefully those who hurt human life, despised and excluded the sick, and condemned and marginalized women, never spoke of abortion.
The absence of biblical messages about abortion leaves it up to us to find the best solution and the most just response in facing each unwanted or risky pregnancy according to our conscience and before God. The writings give us no guidance, so we have to look for and find it within ourselves, using our intelligence and our hearts, thoughtfully and compassionately.
What about the fifth commandment, The most frequently used biblical argument in rejecting the interruption of pregnancy is the fifth commandment of God’s laws in the tablets of Moses: “Do not kill.” Do not kill is an ethical principle in all religions, a rule written in our consciences as a moral compass.
which orders us not to kill?
Humans understand that killing is a negative act, but we also understand that killing is not the same as not saving a life. We further understand that it is right to kill for legitimate self-defense. We similarly know that it is not the same to cut down a live tree as to not plant or irrigate a seed. Abortion isn’t about killing. It’s about choosing between life and life: what life to save and what life to lose, what life to maintain and what life not to let develop, what quality of life to assure myself and assure for another with the life I have today, what life I want for myself, for the family I already have, for a new life that should start with quality and with opportunities.
Should a woman who is pregnant and has a serious illness which could be cured with an operation in which she would lose the fetus die in order “not to kill”? Should she leave her other children orphans? Is it murder not to give life to a fetus with an incurable disease that would cause it to be in pain for all of its life?
Should it begin life in order to suffer and make those who care for it suffer? Is it murder not to give life to a fetus with a serious brain malformation and a poor family that won’t be able to look after it or a family where that child will be an impossible responsibility for it parents and siblings? Is it murder not to give life to a fetus with an incurable illness if its father and mother are frightened at what that illness will mean for their own lives? Is it murder not to give life to a fetus that was the result of violence and rape and is rejected by the mother’s womb?
Is it murder not to give life to the fruit of the rape of a child? That’s not about murder. It’s about choosing between a potential life and a life that is already developed, that has rights and responsibilities and should have more opportunities to develop.
The will to suppress a life and cause death because of self-interest, hate or irresponsibility is far from most women’s decision to interrupt a pregnancy. The commandment “Do not kill” doesn’t fit in this case. It isn’t killing, but rather stopping a life in process in order to benefit another who is already alive. It is concerned with quality of life for those already alive and the potential quality of life of something in process of being a human life.
Naturally, it’s very difficult to reason from this perspective when a person thinks of God as an inflexible, severe and demanding judge and jailer. Or when a person thinks that the pastor’s or priest’s opinions have more value than one’s own conscience. Or when a person does not trust her own ideas and has been made to feel bad and selfish.
When we include the religious perspective in the debate over abortion, we shouldn’t do so from a commandment, rule, prohibition, fear and guilt. We should also not reduce the religious perspective to a discussion of biblical texts, where one person argues from one verse and the other from another. The Bible is plagued by contradictory verses. Compassionate reflection, common sense and putting oneself in the shoes of the woman facing the decision will give a better result. Nothing more religious is needed than a spiritual connection with our own conscience or with the feelings of the other person. Nothing more Christian than the act of listening respectfully is necessary.
What do the Christian ChurchesJust as the Bible was written exclusively by men, Christian church doctrine has also been formed by men. This fact raises suspicions about the theological criteria that judge abortion as a crime and blame and condemn women who interrupt forced or unwanted pregnancies.
say about abortion?
Men—priests and pastors—have always directed and made the decisions in the Christian church, and they have promoted masculine and chauvinistic ideas in every reference to sexuality, maternity and birth. This has overshadowed women’s points of view, even though they are the ones that should be most considered and valued when it comes to the interruption of pregnancy.
Every woman is capable of deciding responsibly about her pregnancy. This is a fundamental starting point in favoring the woman’s point of view in this dilemma. Supporting her in developing this ability to reflect and decide is what Jesus would have done. He wouldn’t have judged her and wouldn’t condemn her, whatever her decision.
The positions of Christian thinkers on this theme have been severe and completely slanted by male chauvinism for some time. Martin Luther, the great man who inspired the Protestant Reformation, didn’t permit abortion even when the woman’s life was in danger. He reasoned that “it does not matter that women suffer or even die in giving birth, because they came into the world in order to give birth.” Another example of this cold lack of compassion is that when anesthetics and sedatives first used in alleviating women’s pain during childbirth, priests and pastors opposed these medications, justifying their opinion by the verse in Genesis where God said to Eve: “You will give birth in pain.” Even today there are those who think this way.
Christians don’t all think alike Catholics and many evangelical denominations are currently participating in a campaign that has made opposition to abortion its central moral theme, the main ethical foundation of Christian commitment. This has created great confusion, generated intolerance and ruined the meaning of faith and ethics.
Despite the insistent opinions of those who maintain that to interrupt a pregnancy is “to kill,” we have a right to doubt them and to think and act contrary to them, based on our own informed, responsible and free conscience. Christian theology has always maintained that in the case of rational doubt we have not only the right, but also the responsibility, to decide according to our own conscience.
The interruption of pregnancy is currently a topic of debate among both evangelicals and Catholics in Latin America. In Catholicism there are groups such as Catholics for the Right to Decide, an organization of Catholic women with members in many Latin American countries, including recently in Nicaragua. They teach that a responsible decision in favor of life is what pleases God. Sacred Choices, a Catholic organization in the United States, promotes the idea in families that the decision of the woman and of the married couple to bring a child into the world is as sacred as the decision to interrupt a pregnancy.
The official Catholic position is particularly rigid. It not only rejects abortion, but opposes contraception, placing women in a trap. Even when we know that family planning, with its variety of contraceptive methods, is the best abortion prevention because it helps avoid unwanted pregnancy, the official Catholic doctrine opposes birth control by artificial methods and only accepts the “rhythm method” which is ineffective and complicated. It even rejects the “morning-after pill.” The message contained in all these prohibitions is that women’s destiny is to accept “all the children that God sends.” No other religion shares these rules. Virtually all religions permit and promote artificial birth control methods and do not teach that their use is contradictory to religious belief.
Religious groups that oppose healthy and liberating sex education in schools aggravate the problems as well. Because of the inequality of power between men and women in our society, the lack of sex education always affects girls and women more. The lack of sex education often leads to unwanted pregnancy, forced pregnancy and abortion. In this way, those who are against abortion end up actually promoting it.
Theologians, priests, bishops and other religious leaders and workers, question and contradict the Catholic position on abortion. Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Brazil, for many years, has this opinion on pregnancies resulting from rape: “The advice we should give to any girl who has been raped is to go immediately to the gynecologist and get treated. Don’t wait until a child forms in your womb. This is the advice I received from my ethics professor fifty years ago.”
And this is the opinion of the Catholic theologian Ivone Gebara, also of Brazil: “Women are not obligated to have an abortion or not, but should have the right to decide. An excluding society denies this right to poor women from the moment that it denies the right to sex education. If a 15-year-old girl says she can’t continue her pregnancy, society doesn’t have the right to blame her, because society’s responsibility to her was not fulfilled. Because of this I’m in favor of decriminalizing abortion, but accompanied by sex education. I believe that states should not criminalize abortion and should create the conditions for women who need to abort to do so in the shortest period of time possible.
Men commit a more serious abortionSome argue that with broader legislative permission for abortion, Nicaragua would become a “slaughterhouse” and abortion a “vice.” Concealed within this thought is the idea that women are irresponsible, and that if they interrupt a pregnancy it’s because they are poor mothers. It’s an idea contradicted by the reality of daily life in our country, where a majority of women raise their children with enormous generosity, effort and responsibility, while the fathers effectively “abort” them in practice: not recognizing them, abandoning them and not worrying at all about their well-being. Religious authorities should strongly denounce this mass “masculine abortion,” but they never do.
Some argue that there will be more sexual promiscuity if abortion is decriminalized, and more rape if post-rape abortion is legalized. This thinking shows a view of human sexuality forged in generations of patriarchal and chauvinistic culture. We don’t know, nor can we imagine, what our sexuality as human beings would be like if women and men lived as equals. The culture of machismo, expressed in a vividly chauvinistic sexuality—as an exercise of power and domination and not of sharing and love—is the cause of many forced pregnancies and, in consequence, of many abortions. The machista culture is what we need to analyze and overcome if we want to avoid abortion.
Legislation on and debate about abortion should always favor women’s viewpoint, and the point of view of each woman in each case, with the full confidence that women know how to decide responsibly and how to choose life.
Trust women and choose lifeEvery responsible decision made according to our conscience and before God is a decision to choose life. To decide responsibly to interrupt a pregnancy isn’t a sin. It’s a decision that must be respected because God respects it. It’s a decision consistent with the God of freedom and of life. Life is life if we live it fully: Jesus told us that God wants us all to live and to live abundantly.
This assumes the right of all children to be born into Nicaragua and into this world as “wanted,” of every child in our country and in the world to be loved. It assumes the right of all women to decide freely when they want to have a sexual relationship and when they want a new life to be born from that relationship. It assumes the right to control birth and to interrupt pregnancy.
We trust ourselves and we have faith in Jesus of Nazareth, who treated women so affectionately in a time when they were seen as inferior and marginalized, and who espoused to women and men virtues culturally associated with women: power exercised as service and as responsibility, forgiveness, compassion, caring and love. Let’s trust in God, who is not a male God, but rather Mother and Father. Let’s make free and just decisions, responsible decisions in favor of life, of our life and for the lives of those who should be born in freedom and from love.
María López Vigil is editor in chief of envío.