Abortion and the Christian Tradition: A Pro-Choice Theological Ethic

by Margaret D. Kamitsuka
Westminster John Knox Press, 2019
Paperback, 258 pages

Reviewed by Anne Linstatter

Abortion and the Christian Tradition Book Cover
Abortion and the Christian Tradition Book Cover

Is a fetus a person? Are all fetuses predestined to be born? Does God inject a soul into a zygote at the moment of conception?

If you like to consider questions like these, Margaret Kamitsuka’s book Abortion and the Christian Tradition is for you. A professor of religion at Oberlin College for many years, she explores what church writers from the early centuries to Thomas Aquinas had to say on these subjects, and she exposes the many flaws in pro-life reasoning when people who oppose legal access to abortion make claims about what the Bible says and what early church fathers said.

Kamitsuka also investigates a tenuous line of reasoning based on how and when, exactly, God became incarnate and whether the sacredness of Jesus in utero can be extended to all embryos. For example, in the case of Jesus, was there normal embryonic development? An early creed adopted at Chalcedon in 451 CE says that the second person of the Trinity took on a human “rational soul and body” while in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant churches hold to this creed, and some pro-life theologians base their claim for everyone’s full personhood at the moment of conception on these words.

I hope I haven’t lost you already. Abortion and the Christian Tradition is not easy to read. I collected sixteen new vocabulary words while reading it, and I’m not entirely sure what most of them mean. Chew on traducianism, eisegesis, and apophatic.

This is a very important book, however, for anyone who is pro-choice on the abortion question. Someone has to stop the nonsense parading as Christian truth, and Kamitsuka has deflated many of the balloons being brandished. It’s our job now to get the word out to our pastors, friends, and political opponents.

After noting that “Christian pro-life discourse commands most pulpits” as well as other public spaces, she says that pro-life Christians “have distorted the central symbols and stories of the Christian faith, including creation in God’s image, the doctrine of the incarnation, Mary’s role at the Annunciation, the parable of the good Samaritan, and others.”

Christian pro-choice voices appear to be fewer than pro-life voices, she observes, and “their influence is less widespread.” When it comes to book-length scholarly texts that give a defense of abortion rights from a Christian perspective, she can name only four, starting with Beverly Harrison’s Our Right to Choose in 1983. As far as pro-choice books aimed at a more general Christian audience, she says they are “very few” and names only two, one by Kira Schlesinger in 2017 and mine in 1994.

One fascinating resource cited by Kamitsuka is a doctoral dissertation based on interviews with over 700 conservative Christian women who had abortions and, for various reasons, also participated in the pro-life movement both before and after their abortions. Titled “Abortion and the Politics of God: Patient Narratives and Public Rhetoric in the American Abortion Debate,” the research was done by Linda Ellison for her doctorate in Religion, Gender and Culture at Harvard University in 2008. See this interview with Ellison on her work.

“Jesus and I are tight,” says one woman cited by Kamitsuka from Ellison’s work. “And I don’t think he’s mad at all about me having an abortion.”

Kamitsuka divides her book into two sections: 1) a critique of pro-life arguments and 2) new arguments for a pro-choice position. In Part 1, she proves that pro-lifers fail to construct a convincing biblical, theological, or philosophical basis for fetal personhood. It’s this half of the book that is slow going for anyone not familiar with these subjects.

Her three new pro-choice proposals are much easier to read and very exciting. They are all based on seeing the becoming human as inherently valuable but not yet a full person.

“[T]erminating a pregnancy should be seen as a mothering, rather than a pre- or non- or anti-mothering decision,” she says. Society gives a woman maternal authority after a baby is born, but she should have the sole authority before birth as well to make the best decision for the possible child-to-be, even if the decision is not to bring a child into the world. Kamitsuka sees this maternal-authority argument for women’s choice as stronger than two other often-heard reasons for choice—the dangers physically and emotionally of forced gestation and the view of a woman in early pregnancy as having no maternal consciousness and thus no obligation.

Her second new pro-choice argument is based on a view that “gestational hospitality” can only be given voluntarily. Some foes of legal access to abortion use the Good Samaritan parable to guilt a woman into completing pregnancy; she should be the good person providing help to the fetus in danger. Kamitsuka points out that the Samaritan in Jesus’ story provides some financial help and then completes his journey; he doesn’t sustain the wounded man for nine months out of his own physical strength. Forced gestation, she notes, often ends with the woman keeping the baby and having lifelong responsibility. The pregnant woman needs to finish her journey, whatever her journey may be; sometimes she has other callings besides gestation. We should regard her as the wounded robbery victim by the side of the road, take her to a medical clinic if that is her choice, and even pay for her care.

Other wrong things pro-life Christians say to women with a crisis pregnancy are, “Take up your cross and bear it,” and “Obey like Mary—don’t disobey like Eve.” Kamitsuka sees Mary’s decision-making as a long process of “tentative, maternal pondering in the midst of uncertainty and precariousness”—especially given the dangers of pregnancy and birthing in the first century. Her cousin Elizabeth “helped her accept that bearing a child was a positive thing.”

There are humorous moments in Abortion and the Christian Tradition: A Pro-Choice Theological Ethic—such as when Kamitsuka quotes Gregory of Nyssa as claiming that Mary’s delivery of Jesus was so painless and her hymen so unbroken that she didn’t even notice the birth. Some pro-lifers adopt this view, “rendering [Mary’s] gestational labors irrelevant to the incarnation” and likewise underestimating the cost of gestation and birth for women with a crisis pregnancy.

An inspiring crescendo ends this theological discussion of abortion. Kamitsuka considers death in the womb, whether through stillbirth, miscarriage, or intentional ending of pregnancy. “What does it mean to . . . have death quite literally inside you?” she asks, with womanist theologian Monica Coleman. At this point, it is critical to have in mind not “the stern visage of a patriarchal God” but a “compassionate Mother, because God also suffered the death of her own Son,” says Kamitsuka.

Furthermore, Godde’s situation is very much like the woman choosing abortion. “The Mother who abandons [Christ] and delivers him up—suffers the death of the Son,” she says, modifying a quote from Jurgen Moltmann. “Therefore, the crucified God understands and has compassion on the pain of the woman who aborts.”

In a final “Credo for a Woman Who Has Had an Abortion,” she writes:

… all unborn dying is taken up into the infinite love of the dark womb of God
I believe that when a pregnant woman chooses no longer to gestate,
the Spirit remains beside her with “sighs too deep for words
and, afterward, empowers her to go on living toward the mystery of God.


Editor’s note:  For more CFT articles on abortion, click here for the archive.

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Anne Linstatter
Anne Linstatter was present at the founding of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (now Christian Feminism Today) and attended most of the organization’s conferences. She looks forward to celebrating fifty years of CFT in 2024. A long-time Californian, she taught “Women & Religion” among other courses at California State University, Northridge, and is working on a memoir, Off Track: Confessions of a Feminist Christian.


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