With the recent announcement of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the Supreme Court of the United States, a decades old issue has regained public attention – abortion and the rights of both a woman and the developing baby inside of her. In a landmark vote of 7 to 2 in favor of Jane Roe, an alias for the abortion-seeking plaintiff Norma McCorvey, over Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade, the highest court mandated the right to women’s privacy, as “broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy” (Roe v. Wade, 1973). The most recent gossip on Capitol Hill pertains to President 45’s interest in using his power to get the rule repealed; his son Don Jr. even took to Twitter and called it “lit” that Justice Kennedy was retiring. The moral and ethical ambiguity of the very core of the issue at hand makes for an extremely difficult decision if the case were to be brought back to SCOTUS. Fortunately, many Anthropologists, Theologists and various scholars have written a variety of works attempting to interpret the rights of both a mother and her prenatal child in this scenario.
Within the most popular, sensationalized, interpreted and widely recognized religious text of all time, The Holy Bible, specifically in the first two chapters of Genesis, there is actually no reference to the prenatal nature of life in context. Verse 26 of chapter one reads, “And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” and continues in verse 28, saying, “and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion…” (Bible.com). In this interpretation, God concludes at the end of chapter two of Genesis that Adam and Eve “shall be one flesh” (Bible.com). Interestingly enough, the Cosmological story behind human creation according to this scripture does not reference the creation of child in its foundation, and God is simply able to craft man and woman with the swift of his wishes. God does not directly reference the creation thereafter right away, yet this piece of text has been widely used and interpreted by experts to form opinions on the matter of prenatal rights long thereafter its inception and recording.
In a piece referred to as Donum Vitae, published in 1987, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a branch of the Catholic Church, attempts to offer guidance to its following on the prenatal rights of a child. The Church emphasizes that Donum Vitaeis, quote, “Instruction on respect for human life in its origin and the dignity of procreation” (Donum Vitae). With the text, the authors proclaim, “Thus the fruit of the human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, [it] demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality” (Donum Vitae). The zygote, the literal first cell of a new organism that is produced when the nuclei of the two gametes have fused according to the text, is an indication of life. Therefore, the writers infer that a person is due respect according to this doctrine from the very moment of their existence, at the very fusion and establishment of their first cell. By this interpretation, any sort of prenatal termination of pregnancy, i.e. abortion, if purposeful, is completely and utterly frowned upon. That prenatal child, although it has yet to be birthed, has surpassed the zygotic stage of pregnancy and, according to Donum Vitae, undisputedly has a right of life. In a later section of the text, there is clear messaging as the authors reference a note at the Second Vatican Council, “Life once conceived, must be protected with the utmost care; abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes,” and further, “… since the embryo must be treated as a person, it must also be defended in its integrity, tended and cared for, to the extent possible, in the same way as any other human being as far as medical assistance is concerned” (Donum Vitae). The argument could not be clearer; once there is a zygote, there is life that deserves the same exact care as a birthed human would receive in the same circumstances.
In a review of Jewish law, referred to as Halakhah, Michael Broyde offers a perspective most similar to The Church’s stance in Donum Vitae in his work Marriage, Sex and the Family in Juadism. Enveloped quite simply in a list of statements, Broyde states, “… Activity that is prohibited (asur). For example, an abortion for reason unacceptable to Jewish law is prohibited” (Broyde 309). He addresses this topic earlier in his piece, writing, “… Jewish law prohibited the killing of a deaf-mute, a lunatic, or an infant… as the Encyoclpedia Talmudit states: ‘a person who is born from another person – in the womb of a woman – is prohibited to be killed” (Broyde 306). Essentially, Broyde is deducing from Jewish law that it is wholesomely frown upon to kill, or even harm, the life of an infant (or unborn) child. Even beyond frowned upon, he describes the act of abortion as fully prohibited (asur), which is an act of defiance towards God. It is important to note that Broyde’s piece and Donum Vitae are rather contradictory at times, and although they are not written with the same intention or yield the same conclusions, similar stances on abortion do seem clear, logical and apparent.
Thereafter Broyde’s work and Donum Vitae, a 2002 report under the presidency of George W. Bush on human cloning offers more insight to the issue at hand. Under a section on moral principles, the report states, “Even where a right to abortion is given, it is based on a woman’s right not to be encumbered, a right of privacy, not a right to directly kill the fetus.” (Kass 268). Kass and his team continue, and elaborate that there is an established principle of human life that respects the sanctity, or inviolability, of that life, that “we naturally grant as we recognize in the other a being of moral equivalence to ourselves” (Kass 268). The report clearly establishes that the justification to abort a prenatal fetus is directly related to a woman’s right to choose, and by all means surpasses the right of a baby to live and have the same ‘inalienable’ rights that a citizen of the United States is supposedly due.
Also, it is especially interesting to note that the work of Kass and his counterparts is requested upon by the president at the time of the report, and that the information gathered worked as an official government document going forward. Although the writers have a clear point to address human cloning and ultimate give President Bush recommendations going forward on the subject at hand, they are intentional to note that abortion is by no means an acceptable or necessary measure to avoid childbirth, and that it is both ethically and morally frowned upon.
Fascinatingly enough, scholar Swasti Bhattacharyya also offers key insights on the rights of a prenatal human in her book from a different angle – through the eyes of the Hindu tradition. In her study of the Mahabharata, an ancient Hindi collection of stories, Bhattacharryya establishes, “… Hindu texts reflect a respect for the developing fetal life and argue that it is deserving of protect for the developing fetal life and argue that it is deserving of protection from harm… the fetus is conscious and even has a memory of his or her previous births” (Bhattacharrya location 1312). Yet again, another interpretation of key religious texts that have helped to shape an entire society, suggest that there are certain respects to be paid to a human, even if that human is in the prenatal stage of life. Bhattacharyya’s work, while it comes later than all previously mentioned works, still reiterates ideas that are evident throughout these works.
Throughout this blog, I have examined Catholic culture according to Donum Vitae, Michael Broyde’s explanation of Jewish law in relation to cloning and prenatal rights, a government report written by a team of well-respected scholars on cloning research, and Swasti Bhattacharryya’s view on prenatal rights from a Hindu angle. It is clear that most religious and scholarly establishments would argue in favor of the rights of the prenatal human rather than outside opinions or involved parties that might not respect the wishes of the fetus or what might be best for them.
Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 1973
The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Bible.com, 2018.
Donum VitaeIn Shanon, Thomas A. And Lisa Sowle Cahill, Religion and Artificial Reproduction: An Inquiry into the Vatican “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Reproduction.”(Crossroad, 1988).
Michael J. Broyde, “Modern Reproductive Technologies and Jewish Law,” In
Michael J. Broyde and Michael Ausubel editors, Marriage, Sex and the Family in
Judaism. (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), pp. 295-328. (e-reserve)
Leon R. Kass, Human Cloning and Human Dignity(President’s Council on Bioethics, 2002).
Swasti Bhattacharya, Magical Progeny, Modern Technology: A Hindu Bioethics of Reproductive Technology(Suny University Press, 2006).
I do not personally agree with the opinion that I support in my blog. I realize that I am writing in a manner that suggests I am ‘pro-life’. I strongly support a woman’s right to choose, although I believe the evidence I have presented suggests that, interpretively, a prenatal human does have inalienable rights to life. This issue is currently extremely controversial, and I do not want to make my stance on it unclear or seem as though I have a controversial opinion.