THIS is a “necessary” book, in the sense that it bridges a gap: between mainstream churchgoers in the West who generally support the legalisation of some abortions and quite a few theologians who do not. Even in Britain, it is difficult to find Christian ethicists today who actually defend the 1967 Abortion Act, despite the significant influence on it of both Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Bishop Ian Ramsey.
As a reluctant defender of the Act (early in our marriage we decided that we would not consider an abortion for ourselves), I have often felt isolated for seeing it as a compassionate response to desperate women and as a proven way of eliminating deadly backstreet abortions.
At last, a passionate and well-argued book has confronted the most strident anti-abortion theologians. This is not an easy task. The clearest positions are those of pro-life and pro-choice absolutists. For the former, full human life begins at conception, and any deliberate taking of that life is murder. For the latter, abortion at any stage is simply and solely a decision for the pregnant woman: the foetus/baby has no legal or ethical rights until birth.
Despite her subtitle, Professor Kamitsuka is not pro-choice in this sense. She does believe in a woman’s choice, but she also believes that the foetus has value from conception onwards, and she recognises that there is an ongoing tension between these two beliefs.
The first part of this book is the most effective and combative. Here, she argues in detail against those theologians — including David Albert Jones in The Soul of the Embryo (ironically shortlisted in 2007 for the Michael Ramsey Prize) — who claim that abortion has been consistently and wholly opposed by mainstream Christianity since the New Testament (or even, some claim, the Old Testament). She contends, convincingly in my view, that the biblical evidence for this is ambiguous, and that Tertullian, Augustine, and Aquinas did not condemn all induced abortions as being equally wrong, and nor did much Western Church practice until the late 19th century.
Nor is she convinced by the doctrinal and philosophical arguments used by pro-life advocates. She is particularly shocked by the claim of the Thomist philosopher John Haldane (together with Patrick Lee) that when a mother’s life is in danger “a man ought rather to let the woman perish than that he himself . . . [commit] the crime of homicide in killing the fetus.” She explodes at this point: “Such statements render one speechless with the misogyny that is not even thinly veiled. . . I find this viewpoint abhorrent.”
The second part sets out her own position more clearly, arguing that “a fetus is not a nonperson without value, but neither is the fetus a person whom a woman is morally obligated always to gestate.” She also pleads for a more compassionate approach to women who, for whatever reason, finally decide against gestating: “I suggest that God sends God’s Spirit of comfort not just to repentant women but also to women who believe they made the best or at least the only feasible choice available to them — whether their abortion choice is experienced as tragic, a survival tactic, or a response to other callings”.
Whether or not one finally agrees with her, my hope is that this book will nuance a debate that remains much too polarised, especially within the United States and parts of Catholic Europe (including Gibraltar, where a referendum on abortion is pending).
The Revd Professor Robin Gill is Editor of Theology and Canon Theologian in Gibraltar.
Abortion and the Christian Tradition: A pro-choice theological ethic
Margaret D. Kamitsuka
Westminster John Knox £27
Church Times Bookshop £24.30