Abortion Is, and Is Not, a Religious Issue

COMMENTARY: To portray the truth that life begins at conception solely as a religious belief appears to solve a real problem for pro-choice advocates.

Pro-lifers demonstrate against the legalization of abortion at the presidential palace in Olivos, Argentina, on July 30, 2018.
Pro-lifers demonstrate against the legalization of abortion at the presidential palace in Olivos, Argentina, on July 30, 2018. (photo: Spotlight Images Agency / Shutterstock)

It is surprising to hear people say, as the The New York Times’ Elizabeth Dias reported, that the proposition “Life begins at conception” is a religious belief. 

It is true that the Catholic Church, many other Christian churches, and many Christian and non-Christian congregations state publicly that life begins at conception in order to argue that elective abortion should be illegal.

But no religious authority ever reasoned to the conclusion that life begins at conception based on divine Revelation or any set of religious teachings. In fact, religious authorities got the question wrong in the past when they followed the widely accepted but underdeveloped science of their day, even when also following well-reasoned philosophy. 

In a famous example, the medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas followed an Aristotelian philosophy of the soul combined with the science of his day to conclude that a male came into existence in 40 days and a female in 90. He thought that it took 40 or 90 days for sperm and menstrual blood to form the body of a human being.

Eight hundred years later, we know that the simple union of sperm and eggconception — is enough to form the body of a human being. The zygote is a single cell with everything that it needs to exist, divide and organize the multiplying number of cells of the growing body of a new human being. 

“Life begins at conception” is a scientific and philosophical conclusion and is hardly a religious belief. Believers recognize that their religious traditions need science and philosophy and wonder how people could think that “life begins at conception” is an article of faith. 

But to portray the truth that life begins at conception as a religious belief appears to solve a real problem for pro-choice advocates. “Life begins at conception” is the most serious counter argument that abortion advocates face. If life begins at conception, then elective abortion at any point during pregnancy means using the death of the child to solve a social problem, for example to avoid overwhelming burdens of raising the child in extremely difficult circumstances. If “life begins at conception” were seen as a religious belief, then it could be dismissed as dependent upon religious authority and an inappropriate basis for civil law.

Although “life begins at conception” is not a religious belief, religions help people see the humanity of the embryo, as well as the mother. Religions teach that each person is valuable and loved by God. So it is no surprise that believers naturally wonder when each new, valuable person comes into existence. 

Religions also teach people how to relate the physical aspects of reality, which they see and touch, to the non-physical aspects of reality, which lie just beyond their senses and demand to be recognized and understood. Religion helps believers know that when they see the body of an organism, they also perceive the presence of an individual. When they see the union of sperm and egg produce a single celled zygote, they recognize the beginning of an individual human being.

When a person recognizes the scientific truth that conception brings a new human individual, they cannot ignore it. If they are religious, they will delight in knowing yet another truth of God’s creation. They will also know that God holds them accountable for living according to that truth and treating each person with respect from conception until natural death. This is how abortion becomes a religious issue.

The developing science about the embryo will make it harder and harder to think that an individual human life begins at any time after conception. Thus it will become harder and harder for civil authorities, including state and federal legislators and supreme court justices, to think that performing an elective abortion is anything less than deliberately ending the life of an individual human being. It should become harder and harder for civil authorities to assert a right to elective abortion in order to protect women’s human right to help in handling unwanted pregnancies. Scientific knowledge is pushing societies — their believers and non-believers alike — to find other ways of helping women.

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