Abortion and the Politics of Death

Political discussion of abortion parallels and intersects discussion of the death penalty. Some people are completely ‘pro-life’-they oppose any taking of human life from zygote to natural expiring-and some are completely ‘pro-death’-they support abortion and the death penalty. In between, some accept abortion and oppose the death penalty, and the reverse-some reject abortion and approve the death penalty. These political positions are usually voiced as ethically and religiously informed.

US political posture toward abortion is puzzling because the government’s interest is unclear. Totalitarian governments like China have instituted forced abortion policies to lower national birth rate in the economic interests of the country. The Russian government has offered economic incentives to bear children and not use abortion, a primary contraceptive. The justifications in both instances have to do with the government’s interest in limiting or expanding population. But this is not an element in the political discussion of abortion in the US where the issue is religiously framed and the government is seen as the agent of a moral position. The Vatican overtly questioned whether John Kerry should be allowed communion because he accepted the US law permitting abortion.

For the sake of analysis, consider the Vatican position on abortion as exemplar of religious opposition to abortion. Orthodox Judaism and Islam take similar positions, as do many religious and cultural traditions. Though polls show that American Catholics, the single largest religious group in the US, generally approve legalized abortion and have used it, the doctrinal teaching opposes it absolutely. Catholicism actually changed its position permitting capital punishment to one forbidding it in order to maintain a sacredness of life position consonant with opposing abortion.

The moral suasion of this position is that human respect for life must be absolute as God gives life and only God may take it. This interpretation forbids abortion, capital punishment, war, and euthanasia. The government must then be held to enforce God’s rule over these domains-the womb, evil behavior, conflict, and death. The previous Pope opposed the war in Iraq, forgave the man who tried to assassinate him, urged women who had been raped to turn an act of war into peace by bearing the children, and opposed removing the feeding tube from Terry Schiavo-all on the same ‘life is a seamless garment’ argument.

Abortion, which means to take off cycle or out of the life route, is opposed by the absolutist position only insofar as humans take deliberate action. That is, the millions of natural abortions-usually called miscarriages-are regarded as acts of God and don’t incur culpability. So the billions of fertilized cells, zygotes, which do not adhere to uterine walls and are sloughed in menstrual periods are not usually known or mourned. More importantly, they are not baptized or buried. But any human action taken to prevent implantation on uterine walls-contraceptive pills, or dilation & curettage scraping of the uterine wall-is forbidden. The Vatican position is made harsher because any contraception except abstinence is also proscribed. The sexual act must always be open to procreation. Catholic analysis usually follows Aquinas’ interpretation of Aristotle’s idea of the end of an act. The sexual act is seen as organized to procreation and therefore procreation must not be blocked. God’s will here organizes all sexual activity to reproduction. It’s remarkably biological. It forbids blocking sexual fertilization or development. (Norman Mailer appositely wrote in The Prisoner of Sex that he personally insisted that all his sexual partners refuse any contraception so that his sperm had a chance to create life.)

Ayatollah Sistani’s interpretation of Islamic law, in contrast, is that “it is permissible for a woman to use contraceptives to prevent pregnancy, provided that it does not damage her health in a serious manner, irrespective of whether or not the husband has agreed to it.”

With regard to abortion, Ayatollah Sistani’s interpretation is also more flexible than the Vatican’s. In response to the question “If a Muslim woman is raped (out of marriage by a stranger), is she permitted to have an abortion?, his ruling is “No, she is not permitted except for when it may cause her an insufferable problem or difficulty. For instance, in the case that she might be killed if her relatives come to know about her pregnancy, she is allowed to have an abortion.”

The woman’s life is considered, unlike the absolutist Vatican rulings which require women to bear children of rape, incest, or medical complications which would kill the mother.

In the case of competing deaths, the life of the mother or the child, some US politicians opposed to abortion make concessions for rape or incest or maternal life; some don’t. Supporters of abortion sometimes make the argument that the zygote or fetus or embryo is not a person because it is microscopic or not viable or severely damaged. Even Thomas Aquinas thought personhood only came with quickening, when the soul entered the body near the end of the first trimester. Present-day biological understanding doesn’t speak of animating soul, but traces a seamless biological evolution from the union of sperm and ovum cells to form a zygote which implants in a womb. But that cell is simply microscopic in biological imaging; it is only a child in human imagination and in gestation time with human nurture. Jessie Helms’ recent lament that abortions are like the holocaust is not only politically inflammatory it’s importantly off the mark about death. In the Nazi case the government legalized the slaughtering of human persons for state ends; in the case of US abortion practice the government is not legalizing the slaughtering of human persons. People like Jesse Helms may well imagine fertilized microscopic eggs as children; he may even imagine his own sperm as children, but without women’s wombs and time they are not.

Other men have imagined sperm as children. A literary and legal example is in Aeschylus’s The Eumenides. The play is usually regarded as dramatizing the move from family vengeance to a legal justice system. In the play the court is evenly divided on the issue of Orestes’ guilt for killing his mother because she killed his father. Agamemnon, Orestes’ father, was slaughtered in his bathtub by his wife Clytemnestra when he came home from the Trojan war. Clytemnestra said she was avenging the death of their daughter Iphigenia whom Agamemnon had sacrificed to get the winds to blow to go to war, but she did have a lover who helped her. Apollo urged Orestes to avenge his father though this put him in a classical Greek dilemma. He was bound to avenge his father and would be pursued by the Furies if he didn’t. But avenging his father by killing his mother also put him at the mercy of the Furies who avenge the death of a parent. So half the court said a law is a law, Orestes is guilty. The other half said he did the right thing in killing the killer of his father-i.e. his mother. Athena as judge must cast the deciding vote. Athena, child of father Zeus, found for Orestes and delivered the following reasoning. The child is the sperm, male seed, a homunculus, which is deposited into a woman who serves as a garden. Any garden will do; primary identity is with the father: the true parent is he who mounts Athena says. (There is in fact a Catholic Church tradition that spilling sperm is a mortal sin because it is a refusal to organize sex into family. The Genesis story of Onan-who gives his name to masturbation-is cited.)

So imagining the life in the womb as being essentially male and belonging to males is an old story, which Norman Mailer and Jesse Helms reprise, and which many orthodox religious positions legislate.

Present US law, to the contrary, gives women the right to consent to child-bearing, and to control child-bearing through contraception and abortion. Modern Athenas Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have supported reversing the male story.

Abortion is framed politically in the US not as a male-female power issue, however. It is framed as a radical life-death power issue. And the government presumes to act as and for God. While the government can presently give death-it executes and declares war-it can not give life except by prohibition. Humans must consent or be forced to consent to bear children, to avoid suicide, to continue life supports. (In the Christian story Mary is asked to bear Christ.)

The separation of church and state is not only Constitutional. It’s a prophylactic against religious extremism. Ayatolla Sistani seems to me more moral and socially responsible than Jesse Helms or the legal ayatollahs who so confidently rule on women’s wombs. He gives rulings to his faithful who trust his wisdom and piety and commitment to Allah. Our country embraces his God and the Pope’s God and many other Gods and the Godless. Our country is not God.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu








We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the “Website”).

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005


DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu