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Book review: T&T Clark Reader in Abortion and Religion edited by Rebecca Todd Peters and Margaret D. Kamitsuka

13 October 2023

There is far more to be said, Robin Gill finds

THIS is a very interesting collection, but as a “reader” it should come with a health warning. The two editors are both well-respected US feminist, pro-choice theologians, thoroughly opposed, from beginning to end, to the recent US Supreme Court overturning of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made legalised abortion possible for half a century in every state until now.

Although I personally deplore the recent US Supreme Court decision, I fear that the editors have underestimated the strength of pro-life Christian perspectives, over-egged the unanimity of Christian women in favour of legalised abortion, and largely ignored the considerable theological contributions from other countries.

Compared with, say, Alireza Bagheri’s recent collection, Abortion: Global positions and practices, religious and legal perspectives (Cham, Switzerland: Springer International) — to which, I should disclose, I contributed — it is, frankly, far too parochial and partial. The legalisation of abortion is emphatically a global issue, as Bagheri rightly insists, and, like it or not, religious leaders tend to be predominantly opposed to its legalisation.

I differ from their opposition, because I can still remember deaths from septic backstreet abortions in Britain before the 1967 Abortion Act, but not because I regard induced abortion as “a gift from God”, as some of the contributors here claim.

The reader is in five sections, the first and fourth being, for me, the most valuable. The first focuses on the experience of women who have had an induced abortion (surely, that is extremely important), and the fourth gives a very balanced account of opposing theological perspectives within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

While conservative voices tend to predominate among leaders in each of these faiths, there have also long been those in each who acknowledge that induced abortion is ubiquitous in many societies across time, that pastoral compassion should respond to this, and that absolutist prohibition condemns some poor women to an excruciating death. Interestingly, Islam has inherited some of the Aristotelian assumptions about ensoulment which Augustine and Aquinas shared (and that made early abortions less egregious than later abortions).

Other sections focus on (largely American) socio-scientific studies, historical contexts, and the politics of abortion. Given an interest in the tortured debate in the US today, there is much to be learned from these chapters. Within their own framework, the editors have done well to select and edit excerpts that are accessible and thought-provoking.

I just wish that they had listened more carefully to some of the considered British and European voices in this vexed area, such as the late, great Archbishop John Habgood. His “gradualist” approach — encouraging greater ethical and pastoral concern for women, the more advanced their pregnancy — is overlooked.

Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent, and Editor of Theology.


T&T Clark Reader in Abortion and Religion: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives
Rebecca Todd Peters and Margaret D. Kamitsuka, editors
T & T Clark £31.99
Church Times Bookshop £28.79

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