Friday, September 17, 2010

Freedom of Religion = Freedom from Legislating the Catholic Position on Abortion

Tim Townsend, religion reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since 2004, has gained quite a lot of attention for his analysis of various religions' divergent views on when human life begins, first posted on the Post-Dispatch website on August 22nd under the headline, New Mo. abortion law counters some philosophy, theology.

Several other media outlets that ran the piece thought they could improve on the title:

The Huffington Post (and evidently Religion News Service) named it Life Begins at Conception, New Mo. Law Says.

The National Catholic Reporter ran with Mo. lawmakers answer when life begins.

The weekly Houston Belief section of the Houston Chronicle got fancier: When does life begin? Laws attempt to apply Christian theology to answer question.

None of these, alas, captured Townsend's point as cogently as the original headline. For his real point is that several respectable religions have widely divergent views on when human life begins--and that the First Amendment's freedom of religion clauses prevent federal, state and local governments from favoring any one of them in legislation to control abortions. That, of course, has been a persistent view of mine since the 1960s.

But that, of course, has not prevented the Roman Catholic Church from trying to impose its specific abortion teaching on the rest of us throughout those decades. Rome has always tried to argue that its position is grounded, not on religious belief but on the so-called natural law--which, church officials argue, is accessible to all people of good will through reason alone, apart from any revelation by anyones God. Trouble is, Catholic church officials are the only religious leaders who accept their version of natural law. Thus the Catholic description of natural law is at bottom a religious belief--and, as such, one among others. No wonder after so many decades of trying, Rome has gotten only two of our states to agree legislatively that human life begins at conception.

Townsend's best contribution to the discussion is pointing out that until the late 19th century Rome's reading of the natural law was different than it has been since, and in fact much closer to the views of today's Protestants, Jews and Muslims than those of today's Catholic conservatives. This being the case, why make it the litmus test for Catholic orthodoxy and why, above all, insist that it can be imposed on other believers or those who exercise their right not to believe at all?

The following paragraphs are Townsend's succinct summary of the positions of various religions on when life begins. They explain why freedom of religion must mean freedom from legislating the Catholic position on abortion.

Aquinas, and Augustine before him, wrestled with concepts introduced by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. Aristotle believed that a soul could inhabit a fetus only when that fetus began to look human, a timetable he set at 40 days for men and 90 days for women.

The 40-day notion prevailed in the Roman Catholic Church until the 19th century, when Pope Pius IX removed the distinction between souled and unensouled fetuses from church doctrine.

Since then, the Catholic Church has conceded that man can never know empirically when an embryo gains its soul.

Protestant denominations have a variety of positions on life's beginnings, although more conservative evangelical churches largely embrace the Vatican's absolutist views.

But other faith traditions disagree, and have for centuries.

"The Talmud says that from the moment of fertilization until 40 days, the embryo has a status of being nearly liquid," said Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, Judaic scholar at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. "The question for Jewish law is not when does life begin, but when is the embryo entitled to the justice and compassion of society?"

Islamic law closely follows Jewish law, though different streams within Islam have various views, said Abdulaziz Sachedina, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Virginia and author of Islamic Biomedical Ethics.

Most Sunni Muslims "believe that life begins at the turn of the first trimester," Sachedina said.

Hindus believe in reincarnation, so life beginning "at conception" creates theological problems. "Life cannot begin at conception when our lives have not ended in the first place," said Cromwell Crawford, a retired professor at the University of Hawaii and author of Hindu Bioethics for the Twenty-First Century.

In its Declaration on Religious Freedom, Vatican II officially moved the Catholic church beyond its earlier claim that it had the right to tell others, believers and non-believers, how to believe. On the issue of abortion legislation, Rome has yet to follow the council's decree. How long, oh Lord, how long?

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