Fortress Press

Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions

Sacred Choices

The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions

Daniel C. Maguire (Author)


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Breaking the silence about choice

As the world teeters on the edge of overpopulation, this new addition to the Sacred Energies series aims to show how ten major religious traditions in fact contain strong affirmations of the right to family planning, including contraception and even, when necessary, abortion.

Maquire first shows how interrelated overpopulation is with poverty, ethnic injustice, gender injustice, and the maldistribution of economic resources. Often the world's religions (most notoriously perhaps, Roman Catholicism) are thought to contribute only to the problem, rather than solutions, through their hostility to sex, education and equal rights for women, and birth control. In fact, argues Maguire, the ten scholars who consulted for several years about how these traditions treat issues of contraception and abortion find in them a true religious awe at the sacredness of life, a genuine openness to sexuality as a dimension of the sacred, and "alongside the 'no choice' position . . .a 'pro-choice' position that is too little known, even by adherents to the religion. That is the key message of this book."
  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • ISBN 9780800634339
  • Format Paperback
  • Dimensions 5.5 x 8.5
  • Pages 168
  • Publication Date May 30, 2001


"In Sacred Choices, Dan Maguire has changed the debate over reproductive rights forever by conclusively demonstrating that there is a theological basis for the pro-choice position in ten world religions. He effectively challenges moderate religious folks to speak up about how their faith traditions inform their views, so that the public and policy makers will understand that the religious right does not possess the authoritative voice on these issues."
– Rev. Stephen J. Mather, Member, Board of Directors, Planned Parenthood Federation of America

"Sacred Choices is the right choice for anyone who wants to explode the poisonous myth that the world's religions oppose a woman's right to reproductive freedom. With the aid of authoritative theologians on each of the faiths examined, Professor Daniel Maguire has marshaled a wealth of factual information to show how the theologies of ten world religions support the right of a woman to decide whether and when to bear a child. Every bit as remarkable are the considerable wit and wisdom he has brought to the task of creating a breakthrough volume that is easily accessible and a delight to read."
– Rabbi Balfour Brickner, Senior Rabbi, Emeritus, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, New York City

"What Dr. Maguire, with his scholarly guides, does so brilliantly is make the data accessible, lift the shroud of stereotype, and let the reader decide for her/himself."
– Mary E. Hunt, Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual

"With all the shouting in the angry debate about abortion, you would think we possessed God's full understanding about our creation. Clearly, we need a new conversation, and Professor Maguire could move us toward a more civilized, more Christian, discussion."
– John P. Blessington, American Catholic


Excerpt from the Preface

Cynics say that conventional wisdom is always wrong. That is an overstatement, but there is one case in which it is clearly wrong. Conventional wisdom says that religions are invariably antichoice when it comes to contraception with abortion as a backup when necessary. This restrictive viewpoint is indeed found in the world religions, and it is a perfectly respectable and orthodox position within those religions – but it isn't the only respectable and orthodox position within those religions. These traditions are richer, more sensitive, and more subtle than we might believe.

In this book, first-rate religious scholars gathered from around the world show that alongside the familiar no choice position, there is a solid pro-choice position in all these religious traditions. Thanks to a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health, and Ethics brought these scholars together for two long working sessions. I have gathered the fruits of their work in this book. The restrictive view on family planning has been well-published. This is the first time the other side has been heard on this scale.

Our goal as scholars is to change international discourse on the subject of abortion. The two sides in the abortion debate need not be so bitterly divided. There are things we could all agree on. We could all agree that there are too many abortions! We could also all agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, since that is the key problem. We might further agree that in a utopia, there would be almost no need for abortion. And we could certainly agree that this world is not a utopia. It is our hope that we all could endorse the moral freedom of women who must sometimes make this serious decision in an imperfect world.

This book shows that the right to an abortion is solidly grounded in the world's great religions. Governments that restrict that right are abusing the religious freedom of many – in some cases, most – of their citizens.

The world religions can be our guides. For all their imperfections, each of them is a classic in the art of cherishing. Each of them faces the fact that life is the good and the precondition of all other goods. But the life that is so good also bears the mark of the tragic. Sometimes the ending of incipient life is the best that life offers. Historically, women have been the principal cherishers and caretakers of life. We can trust them with these decisions. This book shows that the world's religions urge us to do so.

Excerpt from Chapter 1

When I was born, only a little more than two billion people lived on earth. Suddenly there are six billion, with another four or five on the way in the next fifty years. The experts say the population boom will then level off, but no one knows what that number will be. It is worrisome that we have on earth at this time the largest class of fertile persons in the history of the world. Half of the human family are under twenty-five. Depending on what these do, our numbers will peak at mid-century somewhere between nine and eleven billion. Put another way, there are more fertile young folks on planet earth right now than there were people in 1950, and we have no guarantee about what they will do. World population now is like a triangle, with the reproductive young at the wide bottom and the infertile oldsters at the narrow top. Until this becomes more of a rectangle, with a balance between the young and the old, there will be growth.

There is some good news. Overall population growth has been dropping for years. In fact, some thirty-five nations have stopped growing, and some of these actually have declining populations. Even some poor states in India like Kerala and Goa have stabilized their populations. But world population still grows, because mortality is also declining. Sanitation, food, and medicine are all getting better, and more people are surviving. We're lucky to have been born at this point in history—at least those of us who live in the affluent parts of the world. Prehistoric people only lived for an average of eighteen years, factoring in infant death. In ancient Greece, that figure was twenty, and in ancient Rome, twenty-two. It grew to thirty-seven in medieval Europe and some other parts of the world and was at forty-seven in North America at the beginning of the twentieth century. Extensive child mortality was normal until recently....

Dismissing population problems by saying that overall world population will level off sometime around the middle of this century is small comfort for poor nations like Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Nigeria, whose numbers will probably triple in the next fifty years, with economic and political effects that can hardly be imagined. Half the children in Ethiopia today are undernourished; and if Pakistan triples its numbers as expected, it will have about a tennis court of Pakistani grain land per person - not enough to feed their people even a meager diet. In size, Bangladesh is equivalent to the state of Iowa. But it has forty times the number of people, and its numbers are expected to almost double – to about 210 million – by the middle of this century. Those who would sing songs of comfort about the end of the population problem should first imagine 210 million people in Iowa.

And there is another problem. Even when the poor want to control their fertility, they often cannot find the means to do so. According to John Bongaarts of the Population Council, one-third of the population growth in the next century will be due to the lack of family planning that poor people want but cannot afford. It's not that the poor want to have more babies than they can feed. It's just that foreign aid and national governments do not give them the contraceptive help they need, often due to conservative religious influences on the government. Many people believe that contraception is forbidden by their religion, but this book will show that the world's religions are open to family planning, including contraception and also abortion as a backup when necessary. This information has been too little known. Many people, even within the various religions, have heard only conservative views on family planning. It is well known that there are no choice teachings on contraception and abortion in all the religions, but there are also pro-choice positions in these same religions that give people their moral freedom to make choices in these matters. These liberating views have been hidden away – this book seeks to reveal them....

Excerpt from Chapter 3

We will start with the Roman Catholic positions (note the plural) on contraception and abortion, not because it is the oldest religious tradition – it is not – but because of its international influence. For one thing, the Catholic Church is the only world religion with a seat in the United Nations. From that seat, the Vatican has been active in promoting the most restrictive Catholic view on family planning, although more liberating Catholic views exist. From its unduly privileged perch in the United Nations, the Vatican, along with the "Catholic" nations – now newly-allied with conservative Muslim nations – managed to block reference to contraception and family planning at the 1992 United Nations conference in Rio de Janeiro. This alliance also delayed proceedings at the 1994 U.N. conference in Cairo and impeded any reasonable discussion of abortion. With more than a bit of irony, the then Prime Minister Brundtland of Norway said of the Rio conference: "States that do not have any population problem – in one particular case, even no births at all [the Vatican] – are doing their best, their utmost, to prevent the world from making sensible decisions regarding family planning." ...

The separation of power and ideas is one of the tragedies of human life. The Catholic tradition is filled with more good sense and flexibility than one would gather from its leaders. Religious leaders are often not equipped to give voice to the best in the tradition they represent. In Catholicism, popes and bishops are usually not theologians, and often they do not express the real treasures of wisdom that Catholicism has to offer the world. Lay people are changing this as they enter the field of Catholic theology and bring their real-life experience as workers, parents, and professionals. Catholic theology is no longer a clergy club, and that is gain....

Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion has been anything but consistent. What most people – including most Catholics – think of as "the Catholic position" on these issues actually dates from the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii of Pope Pius XI. Prior to that, church teaching was a mixed bag. The pope decided to tidy up the tradition and change it by saying that contraception and sterilization were sins against nature and abortion was a sin against life. As Gudorf says, "both contraception and abortion were generally forbidden" in previous teaching, but both were often thought to be associated with sorcery and witchcraft. In the Decretals of 1230, Pope Gregory IX treated both contraception and abortion as homicide. Some of the Christian Penitentials of the early Middle Ages prescribed seven years of fasting on bread and water for a layman who committed homicide – one year for performing an abortion, but seven years for sterilization. Sterilization was considered more serious than abortion because the issue was not framed as pro-life. Rather, the driving bias was antisexual. Traditional Christian attitudes toward sexuality were so negative that only reproduction could justify sexual activity. Abortion frustrated fertility once; sterilization could frustrate it forever and therefore was more serious. Also, since the role of the ovum was not learned until the nineteenth century, sperm were thought to be little homunculi, miniature people, and for this reason male masturbation was sometimes called homicide. Christian historical sexual ethics is clearly a bit of a hodgepodge. To really understand it, and to arrive at an informed judgment of Catholic moral options, it is necessary to be instructed by a little more history....

Excerpt from Chapter 5

Buddhism, like Christianity, had simple and refreshing beginnings. The Buddha lived 2,500 years ago in what today is Nepal. He discovered a way of life that was simple and balanced. He called it "the Middle Way." Somewhere between manic self-indulgence and grim mortification there lies the middle way of moderation. The Buddha sensed that we can easily get caught in the treadmill of greedy grabbing and of never knowing the elusive good news that "enough is enough." What we don't have can blind us to what we have.

Let's take a look at the basic catechism of Buddhism. We might see why Buddhism is a growing religion today, one that brings the cool waters of relief to our fevered and hyperactive modern lives. But Buddhism is not a major religion just because it has led many on the path of inner peace. It has also distinguished itself by its conviction that humans can undergo major transformation. Buddhism moved into a Tibet in which warriors were the ideal and changed society over time so that monks became the ideal. Three hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the Buddhist king Asoka put Buddhism into practice and changed a society focused on militarism and greed into a society of relative peacefulness. Buddhism has a track record, and that is one more reason to give it a listen....

Parichart Suwanbubbha, a professor at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand, will be our principal guide to how Buddhism tackles the ethics of contraception and abortion. Suwanbubbha concedes that much of Buddhism is pronatalist, i.e., in favor of reproduction. After all, in Buddhist thought, only human beings are able to attain Nirvana. Making lots of them would therefore seem to be, as Suwanbubbha says, "a good sign of a general improvement in the moral state of the universe."

A lot of life experience informs the Buddhist tradition, however, and Buddhism is open to family planning and contraception. In Suwanbubbha's words, "it is possible to say that Buddhist teachings allow individuals, including women, to have the right to plan their family according to their own circumstances using any methods of safe contraception." The middle path supports this, since there can be too many children. Also, "economic misery and quality of life of all members in a family" can justify contraception. The Buddha taught that poverty can become the cause of crimes – a view also held by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, as we saw in chapter one. Inasmuch as this relates to "an excessive birth rate," family planning should be allowed; and good government, in Buddhist thinking, should provide the services for those who want them. William LaFleur says that for Buddhists in Asia "there is absolutely nothing wrong with preventing conception." It is an obvious application of the Middle Way....

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: More People, Less Earth

Chapter 2: Why Do People Make Too Many Babies?

Chapter 3: The Roman Catholic Freeing of Conscience

Chapter 4: The Religions of India

Chapter 5: The Compassion of Buddhism

Chapter 6: Chinese Religious Wisdom

Chapter 7: Chinese Men and the Art of High Sex

Chapter 8: Judaism and Family Planning

Chapter 9: The Wisdom of Islam

Chapter 10: Protestants and Family Values

Chapter 11: Lessons from Native Religions


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