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A historical perspective on abortion

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In today’s heated political climate, abortion stirs immediate strong emotions. For many journalists, it is the “elephant in the room” some seek to avoid.

My purpose is not to stake out a pro or con position on the issue. My aim is to inform readers of the historical path of this most controversial issue and to include the historical role of the church and its theology as it relates to abortion. I will also introduce the readers to the Jewish historical perspective.

Abortion has been practiced since ancient times. This includes the periods of history covered in both the Old and New Testaments of the Judeo-Christian traditions. Intentional abortion was practiced during the period of Old Testament history and during the time of Jesus’ ministry, according to historical record.

The 11th century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki explained: “for the fetus in the womb is not considered a person until it is born.”

Classical Jewish rulings on abortion rely on the women’s instinct and they respect that until the fetus emerges from the womb and the first breath of life is taken. Until then, it remains an integral part of the woman’s body alone.

For some in the Jewish faith, and according to the Talmud, it was only after a newborn had lived 30 days that it had proved its viability and gained the status of a person.

For the conservative Hebrew perspective, the fetus becomes a human being when the infant’s head emerges at birth and takes its first breath. The life breath is the “neshamah,” the soul, a piece of divinity within us that makes us independently alive and fully human. Before its emergence into the world, the mother’s life takes precedence over that of the fetus.

I found the Jewish ultraorthodox perspective most fascinating. Human life begins in three stages. The stage of conception is the moment when the soul comes into the world and your potential is defined. At this stage, the fetus is called “maya b’alma,” mere matter and not a human being. The second stage begins at 40 days. The fetus is considered a human being but the mother’s life should take precedence over the fetus if the mother’s life is in danger. The third stage is birth — the moment the head emerges. From that moment on, the child’s and the mother’s lives are separate lives of equal importance.

Now I want to address the Christian history of this issue. In the early Roman Catholic church, abortion was permitted for male fetuses in the first 40 days of pregnancy and for female fetuses in the first 80-90 days.

In 1588, Pope Sixtus V declared all abortion to be murder. Only three years later, a new pope found the absolute sanction totally unworkable and again allowed early abortions.

This position held for more than 300 years before the Catholic church under Pope Pius IX again declared all abortion murder. Declared in 1869, this remains the church’s official position.

My research found that throughout most of Western history, abortion was not considered a criminal act as long as it was performed before “quickening” (the first detectable movement of the fetus, which can occur between 13-25 weeks of pregnancy). It appears that American states derived their initial abortion laws from British common law, which followed this principle.

Until the early 1800s, abortion procedures and methods were legal and openly advertised in the U.S. However, abortion was unregulated and often unsafe.

Connecticut became the first state to criminalize abortion in 1821 by banning the sale of an abortion-inducing poison. In 1845, New York criminalized a woman’s participation in her abortion. By the mid-1850s, Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer, the earliest of pro-life advocates, led the American Medical Association in joining his campaign for the outlawing of abortion on a national level. By 1965, all 50 states had outlawed abortion.

I will leave the Roe v. Wade debate to you.

Edward “Ned” Walsh of Princeton is a retired Baptist denominational worker who served as executive director of Johnston County Habitat for Humanity from 2004-08.