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    Sacred Choices: Pro-choice traditions in world religions

    The Portland Alliance, May 2002

    Prior to Sept. 11, the abortion debate in the United States was wrapped in party politics which culminated in approval or rejection of Roe v. Wade. The terrorist attacks of last fall pried open American eyes to the fact that we inhabit this planet with billions of other people whose cultures and religions differ from ours. The Islam shelves in the library are thin these days as Americans seek to understand their suddenly, much nearer, neighbors. Enter Daniel Maguire, Professor of Ethics in the Theology Department at Marquette, University. Planned Parenthood of the Columbia Willamette invited Dr. Maguire to speak at Reed College on April 11 about the globalization of the abortion debate, or put another way, he discussed how the world's religions are major shapers of social policies and private decision-making regarding birth control and abortion. Maguire gathered expert testimony from international religious scholars and placed their knowledge in his latest book, Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions. By reexamining the holy texts of major religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Catholicism, and Hinduism Maguire explained that while positions for the pro-life arguments often rely on religion, equally valid arguments for contraception and abortion are found in all major religions. For example, how many people do you think know there's a pro-choice Catholic saint named Antoninus, or that for centuries the idea of delayed ensoulment was interpreted by the most revered Catholic theologians as justification for aborting fetuses since they lacked a soul? Probably about as many that know the Islamic Shiite Zaidiva religion respects a woman's choice to abort for any reason until first breath. More significant than such specific revelations about pro-choice traditions in the world's religions is the overarching philosophy they embrace in the process of refining their belief systems. Maguire points out all religions that have survived and flourished have done so because of their adaptability to changing societies around them, and this is the foundation behind religions accepting various degrees of abortion. Most religions place a heavy focus on the interlockedness of the universe and seek to avoid excess and maintain balance in the world. Hindi dharma is similar to the Chinese concept of yin and yang which is similar to Native American eco-religions in that all stress a respect for responsible harmony in life that transcends the individual. Persons who follow these faiths look at what's around them to see the sacred whereas persons who follow Christian-based faiths tend to look skyward to find the sacred. And how does this affect the debate over abortion, you ask? Consider that abortion is not value neutral in any religion but is seen as a necessary evil in all. If the choice is to bear a child into an overpopulated world where the resources to provide for; it are lacking or to abort, these religions opt for the decision that contributes to the greater good for all society—abortion. There is a respect for life and the gift of children that recognizes fertility can be both, a blessing and a potential curse. Judaism goes so far as to proclaim abortion for pregnancies that threatens women's lives are a Mitzvah, a sacred duty. The stated ideal is of course to terminate a pregnancy, but in addressing the non-ideal needs of the populace, the world's religions consider the needs of women and society always more important than a developing fetus. In this way, Maguire eloquently argued that to deny women the right to choose is to deny women the right to religious freedom. Catholicism contains a similar philosophy Church teaching calls sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful. It acknowledges that one path to truth is respecting the moral consciences and experiences of good people who are not of the hierarchy but who have knowledge of married life and children. Catholics who sought relief from lifelong childbearing pressured Pope Pius XII to give his blessing to the rhythm method in 1954, opening the door to accept contraceptive intent and results. With 95 percent of American Catholics already using some form of birth control and the realities of overpopulation and AIDS bearing upon the world, it is only a matter of time before the noble idea of sensus fidelium catches up with the hierarchy that has over the years forgotten to consult the wisdom of people who choose the responsibility for a livable world to future generations. This quote from the preface of Sacred Choices captures the essence of Maguire's speech on religious tolerance and acceptance of abortion:

    The world's religions can be our guides. For all of 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 principle cherisher and caretakers of life. We can trust them with these decisions.
    As people who cherish the First Amendment and its guarantee of religious freedom, most Americans duly recognize abortion as part of the freedom to decide matters of the sanctity of life according to one's own moral compass. The right to religious freedom is the right to choose abortion.


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    Published on: 2005-02-23 (1794 reads)

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