Abortion choice within a historical religious perspective

For many years, we as a society have wrestled with various ethical issues. As society changes, so do our understanding of many of these issues.

One question we have wrestled with and continue to debate is that of abortion and reproductive rights. People will often maintain that their positions on the issue are theological and have been held for thousands of years.

Generally, this is not the case. Historically, theological understandings of women have changed, yet some of the theological underpinnings on reproduction are based on antiquated views of women and biology. Centuries ago, there was no concept of a mixture of a sperm and an egg which would create a cell that would continue to grow to become a complex being. The concept was that a tiny human was in the sperm implanted into a woman and it grew in the woman until it was time for birth. (Interestingly, the woman could still be blamed for not providing a son.) Personhood was not given until birth and then full human rights were not given the child until the child reached a certain age. In fact, full human rights would truly only be given to a male.

Sexuality was seen as a bad thing in Christian theology, and the woman was blamed for this emotion. If a man were sexually aroused, it was the fault of the woman. In some cases, a woman could be accused of being a witch and killed because a man would be sexually attracted to her. Women were not viewed as having rights like men so they could not defend themselves, rather, they were viewed as property. (The “giving away” of the bride is based upon the woman being property.)

What does all this have to do with reproduction and abortion? Many of the theological arguments against abortion have to do with women having no rights over themselves. Female sexuality was considered an evil thing. Even the old theology around Mary could only view her as wholesome if she never had sex, even after marriage. Thus the concept of the perpetual virginity of Mary is developed. It is much easier to condemn birth control and abortion if one views female sexuality as evil, because any birth control would be allowing women to have sex for some other purpose than conceiving a child.

One may make an argument against abortion and some birth control based upon one’s understanding of when human life begins, but one cannot claim that this has been a consistent theological foundation of the church. One argument can be based on more recent understanding of the birth process and the other is based upon misogynist theology developed by men who viewed women as property and the child developing in her as belonging to the man as well. With such a view it is easy to deny women a choice of what should happen if they were to become pregnant.


Rev. Dr. Curt Keller is a minister with the United Methodist Church, one of many denominations that have passed policies in support of legalized abortion. Other religions supporting access to abortion include the Episcopal Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Union for Reform Judaism, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Christian Church (the Disciples of Christ).

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