Abortion and the Christian Tradition

A Pro-Choice Theological Ethic

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Margaret D. Kamitsuka
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , October
     2019.
     268 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664265687.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Margaret D. Kamitsuka’s Abortion and the Christian Tradition has two parts: first, a critique of pro-life arguments, and second, constructive pro-choice proposals, written from a theological point of view.

The first part begins with a historical overview that seeks to counter John Noonan’s well-known essay entitled “An Almost Absolute Value in History.” Kamitsuka argues that the historical evidence is not as strongly in favor of the pro-life position as its proponents claim it to be. The author points to ambiguities on the topic of abortion arising from the apostle Paul’s Hellenistic Jewish background, the apparent acceptance of therapeutic abortions by some church fathers, and medieval penitential practices, which treated abortion differently depending on circumstances such as illicit sex, extreme poverty, or conception due to rape. She also argues that “ensoulment” was viewed ambiguously through much of church history, and that the notion that personhood begins at conception is a recent development in canon law and Protestant theology.

The next three chapters round out part 1 by addressing pro-life biblical arguments, the significance of the incarnation of Christ, and the pro-life position as articulated by some contemporary Christian philosophers. On the Bible, Kamitsuka  argues that the “image of God” language in Genesis does not do the work that pro-life authors think it does; the image of God is not ontological and applicable to fetuses, but rather spiritual and applicable to disciples who are called to conform their lives to Christ.

Kamitsuka explains that the various proof-texts that are sometimes quoted in pro-life literature are not actually relevant to the abortion debate today. Regarding the incarnation, the author discusses at length the Chalcedonian creed, arguing that the fully divine and fully human nature of Jesus Christ was not present at the moment of his conception, but was a gradually emerging unity that unfolded over the whole course of his life, death, and resurrection. The chapter on pro-life philosophers takes into account Patrick Lee, Francis Beckwith, J.P. Moreland, and many other authors. Kamitsuka explains in detail why she finds their arguments, which often draw on the concept of DNA, to be unconvincing.

The constructive second part of the book uses “maternal authority” as its central concept. Each woman who is pregnant should be viewed as a competent moral reasoner, who is appropriately seen as being able to decide whether or not carrying a particular pregnancy to term is in the best interest of herself, the potential child, and other children or elderly parents for whom she may already have responsibility. For the state to prohibit or severely restrict access to abortion is a legacy of what Kamitsuka considers to be patriarchy and the anti-sexual biases in Western history.

Drawing on an article by Soran Reader, she argues that abortion should be seen as a “mothering decision,” and “a decision that there be no ‘future child’ to whom one would have maternal obligations” (127). While she does acknowledge that there is some value in fetal life, that value is always outweighed by the woman’s authority. Another chapter considers at length the relevance of the parable of the good Samaritan, a biblical passage often referred to by pro-life advocates. Kamitsuka argues that it is a misapplication of this parable to argue or imply that the woman who decides to abort is like the violent robbers or like the priest and the Levite who passed by. The pregnant woman may choose to provide gestational hospitality to the inhabitant of the womb, but it should never be argued that there is a binding duty for her to do so. The words “duty” and “obligation” are consistently throughout the book presented as the wrong way to think about pregnancy. Giving birth should always be the free choice of the woman.

The last chapter is entitled “Motherhood Choices, Abortion Death, and the Womb of God.” Kamitsuka discusses Eve, the Virgin Mary, and Margery Kempe, framing their stories as teaching that “religious women should be able to envision their rejection of gestation not as a negation of motherhood but as a manifestation of a desire for other life callings to which they wish to say fiat mihi [be it unto me]” (207). She criticizes viewing abortion as sin, and referring to pregnancy as a “cross” that women must bear in imitation of Jesus. She says that “the incarnation vouchsafes that God has given [women who abort] the Spirit, who calls them not to cower in shame and self-recrimination but to go forward and grow in wisdom” (223).

A pro-life reader of this book is not likely to be persuaded by it, for the following reasons, among others. First, the author uses “rights” language but nowhere presents any philosophical grounding for that usage. Second, the author lumps together, rather than distinguishing, all pro-life views, from the most articulate and thoughtful, to the most extreme views that support violence against abortion providers. Kamitsuka would have made a more forceful argument by limiting herself to criticizing the writings of pro-life feminists. Third, she dismisses as “a common trope meant to incite anti-abortion fervor” (161) the parallel that is sometimes drawn between abortion and the Holocaust.

This misconstrues the motives of the pro-life authors who draw a parallel between slavery, the Holocaust, and abortion, does not take seriously the depth of research and reflection that underlies the parallel, and completely ignores the fact that the same sort of argument has been made by pro-choice advocates in the opposite direction. Fourth, Kamitsuka bringing in God at the end of the book seems almost like a weak afterthought; God is only seen as the compassionate affirmer of whatever decision the pregnant woman has made using her own autonomous reason.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Margaret D. Kamitsuka is the Francis W. and Lydia L. Davis Professor Emeritus of Religion at Oberlin College.

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