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Sacred RightsThe Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions$

Daniel C. Maguire

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780195160017

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195160017.001.0001

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(p.273) Conclusion
Sacred Rights


Oxford University Press

It is customary, in Hindu philosophical discussions, to begin the exposition of one's point of view, not by stating the arguments for it, but instead by presenting first the position against it and the arguments on which this opposite stance is based. Thus, a discussion of the proofs of the existence of God usually commences, in the standard Hindu manner, with a catalogue of the arguments against God's existence. Such a statement is called the p°arvapakùa—or the preliminary view which is meant to be later refuted. Such a procedure may seem perverse to some of us, but it possesses one great merit—it leaves oneself, or others for that matter, in no doubt about the task one is engaged in.

It seems to me that the adoption of such a procedure might be particularly appropriate for this concluding chapter. After all, there is a widespread perception abroad that the religious traditions of humanity are uniformly opposed to family planning, contraception, and abortion. The word “uniformly” was used in the above sentence on purpose, as a double-edged sword, to imply that all the religious traditions of humanity are supposed to be opposed to family planning, contraception, and abortion, and further that each tradition in itself and of itself is totally so opposed. That is to say, it would be futile to suggest that perhaps Islam takes a more lenient line on abortion than, say, Christianity. Similarly, it would be futile to propose that within Christianity or Islam more than one view on the point may be encountered—and one more lenient, for want of (p.274) a better word, than the other. Thus, not only are all traditions supposed to be opposed to family planning, contraception, and abortion, each is also supposed to be opposed to it in its entirety. This widespread negative view of religion in relation to family planning, contraception, and abortion can be painted in an even darker hue, if a subtle distinction is drawn between the right to family planning, contraception, and abortion and the fact of family planning, contraception, and abortion. It could be proposed, for example, in mitigation, that religions may be opposed to these practices in principle but take a more lenient view in practice. The prevailing view seems to be that this distinction also does not apply to the prevailing state of affairs.

Thus, whether it be the case that one religion is involved or many, or whether different strands within the same traditions are involved, or even when one tries to draw a distinction between theory and practice, the religions of the world are seen as opposed to contraception and abortion. Moreover, there is also the further assumption, to tighten the screw further, that there are no differences in opinion within these traditions on the two topics of contraception or abortion, so far as the religions are concerned. The religions, supposedly, are interested only in keeping women barefoot and pregnant.

The aim of this book is to challenge this perception. The various contributors have focused on challenging this stereotype, even as we grapple with the latest signals of the stereotypical perception as they stare at us from the newspapers or cause pauses in many a conversation. The reader who has gone through the various chapters is already familiar with the patterns of specific arguments and the details of particular data that can be presented from the religious traditions to call the stereotype into question, and come time, even to break it. I would therefore like to focus on questions of a more general nature, which are not any less relevant (and if anything more) on that account. I would specially like to single out two such questions: (I) How did the prevailing perception come to be what it is? and (2) What are the underlying principles that enable us to challenge these stereotypes from within the religious traditions themselves?

How did these stereotypes come to prevail? A little reflection leads to the conclusion that one is here dealing with a master stereotype about religion itself, as an entity that is opposed to contraception and abortion as much as the various individual religious traditions comprised by the term. In fact, it could well be that it is because religion as such is presumed to be opposed to contraception and abortion that the various religions came to be so considered, as particular examples of the generic religion that also shared its quality of opposition to contraception and abortion. In other words, the perception is perhaps more in the nature of a presupposition (prevailing in the intellectual (p.275) circles as self-evident) than a conclusion (based on a careful consideration of the relevant evidence).

But why should religion be considered prima facie in a state of opposition to family planning, involving contraception and abortion as a backup when necessary?

I think one needs to take into account here the self-assessment (bordering on self-congratulation) of the modern age as an age of science and progress. It is common knowledge that the development of science, in the modern West, was seen as taking place at the expense of, and through the eclipse of, religion. To this mode of thinking religion became a metaphor for that backwardness out of which science was leading humanity forward. This resulted in a metaphorical metathesis—as whatever was religion was backward, whatever is backward became associated with religion. A good example of this is provided by a recent development. Because of socialist statist policies, according to many economists, the rate of economic growth in India remained low for decades. The rhetoric of socialist statist economics is also antireligious, so that anything Hindu is considered economically and socially backward. Some economists have now begun describing the old slow rate of economic growth in India as the Hindu rate of growth! In reality, Hinduism has nothing to do with the socialist statist policies that kept the rate down, but such is the logic of the rhetoric of metaphorical metathesis that the economists were apparently unable to resist the temptation!

The modern intelligentsia, which takes pride in science, seems to have found a similar temptation irresistible in relation to religion in general. Thus, just because contraception and (to a lesser extent) abortion had the aroma of modernity about them, they were automatically dissociated from religion because religion is passé. Of equal significance is the fact that religion came to be viewed in modern intellectual circles as a monolithic and static entity. All religions are so branded. Who wants to distinguish among the items of a garbage can when all of them seem to stink as badly? Similarly, why even distinguish, like rotten apples, among the religions!

This modern habit of holding one's nose when treating of religion has produced unhealthy consequences. It has had the unfortunate consequence of demonizing religion in the context of progress. The view, then, that religions are opposed to contraception and abortion seems to possess this dubious pedigree.

This is not to say that the religions themselves may not have contributed to it, although modern trends are implicated in the process as well. The major religions assumed normative shape in the past in a socioeconomic environment that put a premium on population growth for various reasons, secular (p.276) as well as sacred. Those aspects of the traditions that favored such an ideological salience then became identified with the basic positions of the religions; other elements were ignored or marginalized. The spokespersons of the traditions then presented them as the only options within a tradition, and their voice carried the day in earlier ages characterized by massive nonliteracy.

The two main groups who could speak on behalf of the religious traditions as the modern world emerged were either traditional leaders or modern scholars (who had by the middle of the nineteenth century initiated the scientific study of religion). Such scholarly study, almost until the middle of the twentieth century, was heavily historical and philological in nature in the case of most of the religions being considered here (with the possible exception of primal religions). Modern voices within these religions, which were partly echoing the West, also shared the negative Western assumption about religion, which they transferred to their own religions, sometimes with the accompanying assumptions that their own religious traditions were also monolithic and static entities. The misunderstanding that the word sanatana dharma acquired in India in relation to Hinduism—as implying its unchanging character—provides just one example of this process.1

The fact that the scholarly study of these religions was mainly carried out by those outside the religion (with the exception of Christianity and the partial exception of Judaism) further complicated the situation. The interpretations now offered by modern scholars in some cases challenged the traditional ones. This led to a debate pertaining to the contents of the tradition, undermining the credibility of the traditional and the modern elements in each other's eyes to some extent, although the balance kept tilting in favor of the modern. Most of the progressives in these cultures had already accepted the interpretation of progress as progress from religion, rather than with religion (or even through it).

This explanation helps one to appreciate what an advance this book represents in the field, for it rescues the study of religion on the point of family planning, contraception, and abortion from the hands of both traditionalists and modernists of this ilk. All its contributors have had a modern education and yet feel at home in their respective traditions. Thus, each chapter has been written by an insider who is familiar with the scientific-historical interpretations of these traditions. Each of them bridges the two solitudes.

But why, one might ask, are such informed insiders particularly qualified to bridge them?

The answer to this question lies in a simple consideration: that a religion possesses a quality that exceeds its contents, and while an outsider might easily (p.277) gain an access to its contents, this quality is more likely to be accessible to the insider than the outsider.

The statement is not as mysterious as it might appear at first sight and the following consideration might serve to immediately divert us from its mys-teriousness: that science possesses a quality that exceeds its contents. How else are we to understand the phenomenon that the conclusions reached by science sometimes, some would even say often, change, but science continues to remain the same without fear of self-contradiction?

It is in the subtle margin wherein the quality of a religion exceeds its contents that the creativity of a tradition is to be located. It is the margin by which the whole of the tradition is greater than the sum of the parts. It is this margin that gives definition to the vaguely constructive character of traditions. It is this quality of a tradition that keeps a tradition from being frozen in time or in a position. Therefore, it is in this margin that the cutting edge of a tradition is found. It is also this margin that transforms a religion from a concept into a symbol, and it is the semantic difference between these two that is alluded to when it is said that to insist on “reason” is to sadly undervalue “metaphor.” Sadly, because religion rather than science is more likely to be available as a means of knowledge to the consciousness of the ordinary human beings, for it is religion which, by and large, enables most human beings to sustain a coherent vision of the world over time. This remark is not meant to take anything away from the value of science but to point to the danger that the assumption of a state of axiological self-sufficiency on the part of science might unnecessarily inflame its border with religion.

But back to religion. Religions, if they do not succumb to the pressures of change, react to this pressure by degrees. They begin by trying to be innovative. If this does not work the ante is upped—they become inventive. If even this does not work the ante is upped further—they become creative. And all these responses flow from that margin between the quality of a tradition and its contents alluded to earlier. The traditions, however, are not identical. Therefore, they will not respond to the same pressures in the same manner, even if the outcomes in relation to the various religions were comparable in nature. This leads us into the next section.

Let us now try to see where precisely we may locate such creativity in terms of the various individual traditions. I should clarify, as I do so, that this exercise is being carried out in the context of the chapters included in this book and therefore possesses a specific context. One needs to say this since generalization without context can be potentially misleading.

Surprise could be expressed that the same religious tradition should be (p.278) capable of providing a different response to the same issue at another point in time, thereby undermining our faith in faith. One discovers, however, that the sciences do this often enough, yet it does not make us lose faith in science. Why should this be so? Because in the case of science we distinguish clearly between the scientific method, which remains consistent, and the results of this method, which vary over time, as the method is pressed into service for the discovery of truth—the final truth about matter, which remains elusive—without engendering pessimism. We may similarly distinguish clearly between the method of a religion and the results it produces. We need not lose faith in religion any more than in science on account of the variability of the answers, as religions pursue their own cherished values, which remain elusive but which, no less than in science, need not lead us into cynicism on that account.

But just as the precise method of each science such as physics, chemistry, or astronomy differs while still falling within the shade of the umbrella called the scientific method, so may the precise method that each religion uses to calibrate its eternal verities to temporal reality differ from religion to religion, as was hinted earlier. And it does. What follows is an attempt to identify a major element of the method of each tradition, through which it copes with the kind of changes it is called upon to make when new circumstances seem to call for such changes. Because of the importance attached to scriptures in the world religions, I focus on their role in the present context,2 especially as, in some form or another, they are considered sources of authority in terms of normative conduct, which bears directly on questions of family planning, contraception, and abortion.


The following question, when answered in a Judaic context, may help us unlock some of the secrets in the case of Judaism: how may one change the meaning of a text without so much as touching it? The answer, of course, is “through commentary”!

In Judaism commentary takes the more juristic form of decisions by the rabbis on the basis of the compelling insight that although the Torah came from heaven, it is no longer in heaven. What it means precisely is determined by the rabbis down here; it is not determined up there. Hence in Judaism the space for fresh interpretation is created by the tradition of rabbinic interpretation.3

(p.279) Christianity

In Christianity, with the emphasis coming to rest on faith rather than law, two interesting developments follow, especially after the rise of Protestantism. One is the demarcation between the secular and the sacred realms—with the secular arm being left free to deal with a host of issues that in other traditions would involve religious decision making. Second, the emphasis on faith here means individual faith, so that individuals become the numerous interstices through which the meaning of the gospel reaches out into the world.

But now turn to Catholicism, in relation to which the subject is more agitated. The chapter on Catholicism notes the divergence between papal teaching and historical fact—and explores how the further fact that both display variance provides scope for finding a place for the right to family planning, contraception, and abortion within the Catholic tradition. The word tradition was used earlier advisedly, for it is on the basis of its own perception of itself as being based on tradition that the Catholic Church has often sought to distinguish itself from the various other manifestations of Christianity.

Thus, irrespective of whether Christians choose to interpret their heritage more individualistically or more corporately, resources seem to be available to articulate the right to family planning, contraception, and abortion within Christianity in general.4


More than both Judaism and Christianity, Islam takes its definitive stand literally on the word of God as revealed in the Qursʼan. But as the chapter on Islam abundantly illustrates, even a position so impervious on the face of it to any accommodation to change contains within itself the very source of it, if we distinguish clearly between divine and human activity. The Qursʼan is the result of divine initiative and is the final word of God, but the interpretation of the Qursʼan must forever be a human activity so that while the Qursʼan as a revelation is the final revelation, no interpretation of the Qursʼan can be final, for such interpretation is a human activity. It is, moreover, a continuous human activity, which must take changed human circumstances into account.

(p.280) The Abrahamic Religions

The Abrahamic religions rely on divine revelation, but we have now seen how this common fact involves different understandings of its exact modality and significance, and how each understanding provides its own resources to prevent the revelation from becoming a prisoner of history—to enable the revelation to go on revealing, as it were, continually.


Hinduism tackles the issue in its own way, which becomes obvious once the techniques of the traditions already dealt with are summarized on this point. In Judaism it is the vastness of the commentarial literature that provides room for accommodation for new situations; in Christianity it is the secular vastness within it; and in Islam it is the space provided through time. In Hinduism, it is the vastness of the body of revelatory literature itself, which is allowed to grow with time through accretion, extension, or analogical expansion, as the canon was never formally closed.5 The chapter on Hinduism provides a good example. The main body of revealed literature in Hinduism frowns upon abortion, but a body of literature called Ayur Veda allows it, and this Ayur Veda enjoys the status of a revelation as part of the larger corpus.6


Buddhism does not focus on revelation as such, although Buddha's words, or those attributed to him, enjoy a similar status. However, the point to consider here is not the text but the value that it inscribes—namely, its ethical and soteriological intentionality. Since Buddha's words embody this intentionality, the true understanding of his words requires that such intentionality be indefinitely extended to all issues.7

The Indic Religious Tradition

Both the Hindu and the Buddhist religious traditions, though the Buddhist more than the Hindu, place much greater emphasis on the values that are inscribed through the words than on the words themselves. Thus, even when (p.281) revelatory in theory, they are hardly so in practice, which can always bypass the text in the name of its intention, should the need arise. Often, even the need does not arise because Hinduism supplies enough scriptural words to choose from to fulfill a pressing need, while the need itself often provides enough justification in Buddhism for it to be compassionately accepted.


The Indic religions are less revelation-oriented than the Abrahamic (which are more fully imbued with the weight of their scriptures), and the Chinese traditions are even less revelation-oriented than the Indic because their scriptures, although no less sacred, are more pedagogical8 than apodictic in nature. Thus, what the carriers of the vessels believe becomes more significant than the vessels themselves, when it comes to determining what is being carried in the vessels.

In the case of Confucianism it is the self-conscious reflection within the tradition on the population problem, as a topic of political economy, that provides a more direct parallel to its secular consideration in the West, than is the case with other traditions. But while the West tends to separate the secular from the sacred, Confucianism has less difficulty locating the sacred in the secular. This renders the kind of exercise we are engaged in less problematical in the case of Confucianism.


Although Taoism formally possesses a body of literature more clearly defined as revelatory than that of Confucianism, it is generally nonrevelatory in character perhaps as an indication of a culture shared with Confucianism. However, there is an interesting aspect of the teachings of Taoism that is of great contemporary relevance: the clear recognition within it of double function of sexuality as consisting of both recreation and procreation and of the wholehearted acceptance of the distinction between the two. In this respect, Taoism was ahead of its time and sometimes even seems ahead of ours.

The Chinese Religious Tradition

The main locus of adaptation, as this discussion proceeds, seems to shift from text (Abrahamic) to general meaning (Indic) to specific content (Chinese), as (p.282) we progress in our consideration of the various religions, while exploring their scriptures as the basis of their responses to fresh changes.

Primal Religions

When we come to the primal religions, we move a step further in this process: from textual syntax, through semantic breath, through thematic participation, directly to the context itself, for primal traditions are by definition nonliterate. In African religions, for instance, there are no sacred scriptures.9 Heretofore by texts we had meant written texts, even in the case of those traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, where the original transmission may have been oral, but no longer.

Rootedness to the earth constitutes a fundamental anchor of the primal religious tradition, a sentiment famously articulated as follows in the speech of Young Chief, a Cayuse, who refused to sign the treaty of Walla Walla because, he felt, the rest of the creation was not represented in the transaction.

I wonder if the ground has anything to say? I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said? I wonder if the ground would come alive and what is on it? Though I hear what the ground says. The ground says, It is the Great Spirit that placed me here. The Great Spirit appointed the roots to feed the Indians on. The water says the same thing. The Great Spirit directs me, Feed the Indians well. The grass says the same thing, Feed the Indians well. The ground, water and grass say, the Great Spirit has given us our names. We have these names and hold these names. The ground says, The Great Spirit placed me here to produce all that grows on me, trees and fruit. The same way the ground says, it was from me man was made. The Great Spirit, in placing me on earth, desired them to take good care of the ground and to do each other no harm.10

If the issues of family planning, contraception, and abortion represent the population element in an equation, in which this population is then set alongside resources to assess the prospects of sustainable development, then the primal religions saw the future a long time ago, for it is not far-fetched to assume that such an intuition pervades them. After all, the primal religions did not create either the population problem or the consumption problem. On the contrary, they were the ones who kept population and consumption in exquisite balance partly by exercising what we are now calling the right to family planning, contraception, and abortion.

(p.283) However, there was trouble in paradise, from their point of view at least, when these religions came in contact with the modern West, a contact that had negative implications for them, ranging all the way from benign neglect to attempted genocide. This history has complicated the current attitude of primal religions toward the right of family planning. The term family planning almost automatically carries with it the connotation of limitation of the family, but the followers of many of the primal religions may need to plan for the expansion of the family to respond to the genocidal pressures they managed to overcome in the past few centuries—but only just.

The case of primal religions, then, may reveal an ironical but perhaps not unsurprising situation: The religious tradition that enshrines this right most naturally may be the one that needs to exercise it the least. If anything, the opposite.

This book, then, is an invitation to consider not just the topic of the moral right to contraception and to abortion as a backup when needed. The scholars who write here invite us also into a needed dialogue on the relationship of religion to science and to culture. There is sunlight in these pages that can begin to dissipate the fog of naïveté that surrounds much modern discussion of religion in society.


(1.) Benjamin Walker, The Hindu World (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968), vol. 2, p. 347.

(2.) Miriam Levering, Rethinking Scripture: Essays from a Comparative Perspective (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989).

(3.) Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion (New York: Bantam Books, 1967).

(4.) See W. C. Smith, “The Study of Religion and the Study of the Bible,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 39 (1971): 131–140.

(5.) See K. Satchidananda Murty, Vedic Hermeneutics (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993). Also see Thomas B. Coburn, “‘Scripture’ in India: Towards a Topology of the Word in Hindu Life,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 52 (1984): 435–459.

(6.) Percival Spear, ed., The Oxford History of India. 4th ed. (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 54.

(7.) K. N. Jayatilleke, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (London: Allen and Un-win, 1963).

(8.) See Tu Wei-Ming, Way, Learning, and Politics: Essays on the Confucian Intellectual (Singapore: The Institute of East Asian Philosophies, 1989).

(9.) John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy. 2nd ed. (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann International, 1969), p. 4.

(10.) See Vine Deloria, Jr., God Is Red (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1973), p. 95. (p.284)


(1.) Benjamin Walker, The Hindu World (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968), vol. 2, p. 347.

(2.) Miriam Levering, Rethinking Scripture: Essays from a Comparative Perspective (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989).

(3.) Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion (New York: Bantam Books, 1967).

(4.) See W. C. Smith, “The Study of Religion and the Study of the Bible,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 39 (1971): 131–140.

(5.) See K. Satchidananda Murty, Vedic Hermeneutics (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993). Also see Thomas B. Coburn, “‘Scripture’ in India: Towards a Topology of the Word in Hindu Life,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 52 (1984): 435–459.

(6.) Percival Spear, ed., The Oxford History of India. 4th ed. (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 54.

(7.) K. N. Jayatilleke, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (London: Allen and Un-win, 1963).

(8.) See Tu Wei-Ming, Way, Learning, and Politics: Essays on the Confucian Intellectual (Singapore: The Institute of East Asian Philosophies, 1989).

(9.) John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy. 2nd ed. (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann International, 1969), p. 4.

(10.) See Vine Deloria, Jr., God Is Red (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1973), p. 95. (p.284)