Heathenism and Abortion
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Heathenism and Abortion
I expected a variety of opinions when I started a thread on Heathenism and abortion around a year ago on a Heathen e-list but I got even more than I expected. Why such a diversity of thought in one organization serving a small faith community? Well, for starters we Heathens are an opinionated lot to begin with. We don’t take well to the “herd mentality” or being told what to do or think. Another is the diverse regional, cultural, educational, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds of contemporary Heathens. In any case, concerning the issue of abortion, there were people of every persuasion onlist from Heathens who seemed to espouse a sanctity of life viewpoint bordering on that of the Roman Catholic Church to Heathens who would have no problem with the revival of the exposure of unwanted infants. In this article, while I will make my own viewpoints very clear, I will seek to look at other sides of the issue as well and hopefully find some areas of action where Heathens from all over the spectrum on the issue of abortion can work together.
I feel very strongly that the issue of abortion should be discussed in a Heathen context. Perhaps the upcoming Spring season, dedicated to Ostara/Eostre, a German/Anglo-Saxon Goddess of rebirth and Spring (with its attendant flood of new lives), is an especially appropriate context to look at the times when pregnant women choose not to give birth. Fertility and rebirth are two of the Gods’ greatest gifts, but everything has its time and place. Excessive or untimely fertility can have disastrous results. Our forebears understood this and had to deal with it. Overpopulation has been a problem in the Germanic homelands for many centuries, and was a significant factor in all three of the great Germanic migrations (“Dark Ages,” Viking Age, and Post-Columbian Age). One reason that abortion is especially worthy of discussion is that a large proportion of contemporary Heathens live in the United States, where abortion rights are a hot potato to put it mildly and where a large, vocal, and conservatively Christian minority may well manage in the near future to at least temporarily restrict access to safe, legal abortion.
I only recall having seen one article on the subject of abortion in a Heathen publication. It appeared years ago, I believe in Lina, the journal of Frigga’s Web. It took the viewpoint that the shortage of white babies available for adoption obligated the Heathen woman facing an untimely pregnancy to go through with it. I remember thinking at the time “what if the Heathen woman is not white or the man who impregnated her is not?” It seemed to me that the author’s concerns were more racial than moral or religious. Given what racism and obsessive, intolerant ethnocentricity have done to humanity in the past, it is at least arguable that it would be better if the racially obsessed did not raise 21st century children! Some Heathens are real upset that we white (or if you are like me almost white) folks don’t breed as prolifically as we used to. I’m not. For 500 years the peoples of Europe multiplied and expanded enormously at the expense of others. It had to end sometime; there’s only so much room on Earth. And, in any case even more so than our genes; our European languages; cultures; values; political, economic, and educational institutions; and recently even our indigenous religions have achieved enormous, near worldwide diffusion, and that is not going to change anytime soon!
Illegalities aside, I see no reason whatsoever to revive exposure. A modern alternative or even equivalent in a certain sense (they are in a sense placed outside the immediate family circle at least in the sense of not being in the same residence) would be the institutionalization of infants so medically challenged that caring for them at home would not be realistic. In considering institutionalization I would consider factors such as strain on health, sanity and quality of life of care-givers, effects on marriage (the birth of a severely defective child doubles the parents’ risk of divorce), effects on marriage prospects, financial futures, and effects on other children, including those not conceived but planned, i.e. institutionalizing a severely handicapped child so as to have the resources and energy to "try again" for a child which can grow up to function in society and the family. I think someday painless euthanasia may be permitted in severe cases of birth defects. I would be against that under modern conditions unless the child is likely to suffer horrible lifelong pain and is unlikely to be able to develop much. It would in any case be much more humane than exposure.
One idea brought up was that abortion is wrong because it violates family frith (roughly speaking, "peace"). I disagree with this as well. Such theologizing is a big step toward the arguments the Catholic Church has constructed against not only abortion but contraception, etc. One has elaborate and logically consistent arguments that compel folks do things patently not in their interests or those of their families. If I had wanted that I would have stayed Catholic. I believe that Heathen ethics need to stay focused on the practical and commonsensical. Given that many if not most Heathens believe in at least the possibility of rebirth within the family line, one could be a devil’s advocate and say that the returning ancestor had already violated family frith by returning at a most inopportune time when his/her rebirth would wreak horrible damage on the family, especially the mother.
My own view is that one is ethically obligated to do one's best, using available technologies, to prevent unwanted pregnancies. The abortion dilemma is best avoided whenever possible. I think that we can all agree on that! When that does not occur, my own opinion is that in the case of an unwanted pregnancy, even one due to stupidity or irresponsibility, one should consider all options and do what is best for oneself and best for the other people concerned who are already born, up, and running so to speak. Compounding wrongful conception with wrongful birth solves nothing. Two wrongs do not make a right. You don't repay the shild (= debt) from getting pregnant when you should not have by having a child when you should not have; any more than staying in a bad marriage somehow makes entering it alright. If someone feels that s/he has a shild to pay due to having had or otherwise been involved in an abortion, I advise volunteer work and donation to children's charities. Making more religious resources available for Heathen children and their parents would be great too. Establish a positive pattern rather than remain in a bad one.
On the subject of adoption, well, I’m all for it, but am not particularly thrilled with how until recently at least it has been done in the United States. Mom (and Dad if informed, interested and involved) spend the rest of their lives wondering if the child they gave up for adoption lived or died, was or was not well-treated by the adoptive parents, does or does not hate the birth parents for putting him/her up for adoption… I can easily see why so many women and couples choose abortion. It gives closure. At least you know how things ended.
Then one must also deal with the fact that many, perhaps most personality traits have a strong genetic component. That leaves out entirely the issue of familially-inherited hammingja or for want of a better term, some other sort of “metagenetic” inheritance. The link to and the voices of the ancestors are very real, and signing adoption papers is not going to sever that connection. The child may end up with a family with whom s/he has nothing in common in terms of character, temperament and personality and go through life wondering if things would have been better with the birth family. Arguably giving up for adoption a born and at least in the view of modern culture fully ensouled infant could be seen as a violation of family frith. If the pregnancy had been aborted, the ancestor in question could have returned to the family relatively soon and under more propitious circumstances. Most of us do not believe that individuals are limited to only one lifetime, nor do we believe in original sin needing to be washed away by baptism. That eliminates two of the biggest reasons against abortion held by Christians.
That being said, this is a suitable time to point out that opposition to abortion, in the Western World at least, is ultimately a result of the introduction of monotheistic religions. While the Hippocratic Oath (still sworn to Apollo by new physicians today) has a clause against performing abortions, given Hellenic culture’s acceptance of exposure of infants, other factors than moral or religious ones would seem to be involved here. While I am normally not a feminist historian or theologian, I suspect that in this case the opposition to abortion had to do more with control of female sexual behavior (abortion gives women more freedom, and can be used to cover up an illicit affair) than it did with anything moral or religious. Another factor might be the dangerousness of surgical (as opposed to very early herbal) abortion before the discovery of the Germ Theory of Disease.
Adoption within the extended family has much going for it, as does some form of open adoption, in which the biological parents, without necessarily knowing the names or location of the adoptive parents, get, accompanied perhaps by photos, periodic updates on the child’s well-being, academic progress, interests and personality and in addition have the option of reestablishing contact with the child once s/he has reached adulthood and if child and birth parent(s) desire it. This can do much to alleviate the suffering experienced both by adoptees and their biological parents. Nevertheless, even with all the potentially complicating factors entering into adoption, most adoptions involving healthy infants and stable, financially secure couples seem to turn out well enough.
Another factor to be considered by the Heathen woman or couple deciding what to do about a pregnancy when they know that they cannot or should not raise the child that would result is the fact that Heathen couples, like any other couple in Western countries today, may have trouble adopting an infant, since adoptable infants are in short supply, especially infants of the “Anglo” persuasion. Rightly or wrongly many if not most adopting couples prefer to adopt, and a fair number insist on adopting a baby of their own, roughly speaking, “ethnicity.” Still, in terms of lowering racial prejudice and providing loving homes for all children already born, perhaps the shortage of adoptable Caucasian infants is not entirely a bad thing!
However, please also keep in mind that many adoption agencies are run by conservative Christian groups and they are simply not going to give a baby to a couple adhering to a non-Christian faith. Hence, Heathen couples seeking to adopt can run into extra barriers to overcome. It would thus be a very kind, generous and worthwhile thing for Heathen women dealing with untimely pregnancies to carry those pregnancies to term and arrange adoptions with Heathen couples. Kind, generous and worthwhile, however do not add up to morally required or demanded by the Gods. While the medical risks of pregnancy and delivery are much lower than in the past, they are still very real and must be taken into account in the decision-making process. Also keep in mind that when placing a child for adoption, you are still ceding control. As a small and recently reorganized religion, we have a fair amount of turnover, and unless the couple has been Heathen for a long time, they might not remain Heathen long enough to raise the child that way. As with any private adoption, there would be much to consider and much to have put into writing by lawyers when a Heathen gives up a child for adoption to a Heathen couple!
Having known a number of individuals who have in one way or another been affected by abortion, I do not doubt that abortion is usually painful and soul-wrenching, and not only for the women who has one. For her, at the very least, it is unpleasant and expensive. I suspect the pain of going through an unwanted pregnancy and raising a child you did not want and whose birth has consigned you to poverty and lost educational opportunities, an awful but economically necessary marriage, etc. would be even worse, much worse in fact. Instead of ending a life just begun and still at a very primitive level you have ruined a fully developed human life, perhaps more than one, and raised a child under circumstances maximizing the chances of it turning out to be a bad member of society. One reason for the decline in crime, especially in juvenile crime, in the USA over the last few decades is Roe. v. Wade. People who should not be bearing children, at least not at a particular time in their lives, now no longer have to.
Something else to think about is that over the past decade or so, the American people through our government have made it clear that limitless welfare benefits are over. There is a five-year lifetime maximum eligibility for benefits, and even then recipients are expected to toil for benefits at minimum wage in some cases, often without child care. Statistically speaking, single parenthood and divorce of low-skilled women with small children is a formula for long-term, even lifetime poverty. I teach in a community college and do what I can each day to help the considerable number of my students caught in this trap.
It occurs to me that my staunchly pro-choice (and in some cases pro-abortion) viewpoint comes from my being in many ways a rather traditionalist, though not a strictly Reconstructionist Heathen. I cannot fathom how anyone could get “abortion = murder” out of Heathenism. Since most of us Heathens don’t blindly follow the dictates of religious teaching, I can well see how the individual Heathen might personally believe that, but it simply is not in our religion itself. While our religion is important to us and for many of us permeates everything we do, we are able to reach decisions and formulate opinions based on our own observations and life experiences without feeling a need for our religion to validate those conclusions in every case. Take slavery for example. Heathen lore, just like the Bible, accepts it very matter-of-factly. In the Eddaic poem “Rigsthula,” it is even incorporated into a myth of the origins of social classes. I’m still against it on the grounds of my Heathen and Humanist understandings of the human condition, of us being unfallen beings made to stand proudly erect on our own two feet. I might choose to state that in Heathen terms: “I am against slavery because, runically speaking, it turns Mannaz into Fehu and that’s just plain wrong.” I would also point out that even lowly Thrall, every bit as much as Karl and Jarl, was still the child of a God and as such was potentially much more than a slave. Nevertheless, I am knowingly reaching an ethical conclusion contrary to Heathen lore.
A pro-life Heathen once mentioned on an e-list that her rather complicated theologizing on the subject of abortion was necessary because one’s religion should provide counsel for crucial life decisions. My take on it is that our religion already has provided that counsel very clearly; but that counsel is not what she was wanting to hear. To quote comments made some years back on another e-list by Kveldulf Gundarsson, author of Teutonic Magic and Teutonic Religion, “A child is returnable for the first nine days of life, period.” While literal application of this traditional belief, as already mentioned, is no longer possible or even desirable, the overall message is very clear.
Any religion or culture is going to change over time, hopefully for the better. The trick is for it to do so in a way that is both progressive and true to itself. It isn’t easy. Look at the major squabbling, schism and chaos in the Christian churches today. Fortunately, Heathenism isn’t that institutionalized and probably never will be. In any case, nothing in our lore remotely suggests that the human condition is attained upon conception, and that abortion is therefore murder and kin-slaying (one of the most heinous of crimes in Heathen thought) at that. Back in the “old days,” a child had to not only to be born alive to become human, it also had to be accepted, named and fed, which in effect meant being accepted into a human community. In some cases at least the naming was not done until the child was nine nights old. This gave the family time to evaluate the child’s health. In that space of time many but certainly not all serious problems would come to light.
To the best of my knowledge, the lore is utterly silent on the question of abortion. A culture that had no problem with exposing unwanted or handicapped children certainly would not have objected to abortion. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not for bringing back all aspects of traditional Germanic culture. I do not advocate putting unwanted or severely handicapped babies into bogs. Famine is fortunately no longer a part of life in the Western democracies, although relative poverty still is. Our wars are fought in the lands of less fortunate peoples. We have incubators for fragile or prematurely born infants, and special education, social security and, where needed, institutionalized care. I am simply pointing out that my pro-choice position on abortion is, in a Heathen context, the more theologically conservative one! Nevertheless, the past of our culture and religion should inform our choices today, not make them for us. It is a good thing that Heathens think differently on the question of abortion. If nothing else, it shows that we think for ourselves! However, as a core value, I do believe that our children should be wanted and welcomed, not brought into the world out of a misplaced sense of duty or obligation.
There are those who would condemn abortion as “unnatural.” However, it is not found among other species of animals simply for the reason that they are not smart enough to figure out how to do it. What they do must therefore happen after the offspring or in the case of egg-layers potential or developing offspring has left the mother’s body. A bird will abandon her eggs or brood to save herself to lay another and mother mammals will also abandon their young when conditions to rear them are highly unfavorable. Thus, there is nothing at all odd or unnatural about an expectant mother choosing, at least in come cases, not to mother! Of course, only humans have the capacity and responsibility to weigh moral issues and seek to act in a just and rational manner.
The following ideas, along with my own interaction with individuals who did (and in some cases did not) choose abortion have greatly shaped my views on the matter. One of my favorite teachers, Thor Sheil, who learned Heathenry before the formal Heathen revival, was taught to look upon the three trimesters of human pregnancy as being, from first to third, vegetable (non-moving), animal (moving but not an independently viable human being), and human. Hence, for me, while unwanted pregnancy should be assiduously avoided and alternatives to abortion given serious consideration, first-trimester abortion is not a major moral or ethical issue, while second trimester abortion is something I am much less comfortable with and third-trimester abortion for me is something to be done only in the case of very serious birth defects. That late in the pregnancy, if the mother’s life is in danger and the fetus healthy, I would encourage the option of early delivery by caesarian section, with good care being given afterward to both mother and child. I believe that these viewpoints echo Roe v. Wade and reflect at least some degree, the attitudes of many, perhaps even most Americans.
While Thor Sheil does not claim to have, or even want, proof that his version of Heathenism has an unbroken lineage, I think his viewpoint provides much commonsensical food for thought. It is, I understand it, at least backed up by Anglo-Saxon Common Law, which while not specifically Heathen has roots going back into Heathen times. It accepted or at least tolerated and refused to outlaw abortion before “quickening” (perceptible movements in the womb). Thus I personally believe that even the ethically and theologically pro-life Heathen should hesitate before translating those viewpoints into a politically pro-life stance! To consider something to be immoral does not necessarily mean that one should try to outlaw it! By the way, believe it or not, automatic excommunication for abortion was not instituted by Roman Catholicism until well into the 19th century!
The question of the rights or lack thereof of the father-to-be must be taken into account. It is my understanding that certain “white-power” Germanic-oriented groups hold that “only a father can name a child.” Poppycock! Sperm is dirt cheap and daddy didn’t go through agony and put his life on the line squeezing the little darling out! And he thinks he has the sole right to name it? Guys, I know our egos get a bit inflated sometimes, but this is going too far! Nevertheless, I have a great deal of sympathy for men whose sexual partners choose to abort pregnancies that they themselves really wanted to see carried to term. Kid Rock even got in on this a couple of years back, writing a song from the perspective of a guy who was suicidal because his ex-girlfriend had had an abortion. However, it ultimately has to be the woman’s choice due to simple factors of justice and fairness. Childbirth is never fatal or even dangerous to males (seahorses being a possible exception) and given the bumper crop of deadbeat dads out there, I cannot blame a woman for choosing not to bear a child from a relationship that is unstable, already over, or maybe never really existed to begin with.
Legal issues need to be considered too. In the United States anyway, unmarried fathers have or at least can have extensive parental rights, including the right to stop a baby from being adopted out. If the pregnancy is carried to term, the woman may be faced with the horrific choice of either raising a child she was not in a position to adequately nurture or else handing it over to her possibly much more unqualified “ex” or his equally dubious relatives to be (badly) raised at her expense! I can just imagine dad’s lawyer saying “She tried to adopt our baby out! Obviously she doesn’t want him/her and is therefore an unfit mother!” For just that reason, a few years back an American woman opted to give birth in Canada and put the baby up for adoption there, where the rights of unwed fathers are less broad. Her ex-boyfriend sued her when she got back and he got a huge settlement for the loss of his parental rights.
In another case, a college student had a baby by her by then ex-boyfriend. She then did the responsible thing and put the baby in day care so she could finish her degree and adequately support the child. Her ex-boyfriend got a lawyer and sued for custody, stating that he would be the fitter custodial parent since his mother would provide child care in her home and that was much better for the child than non-relative care in a commercial day care center. He won; she lost custody of her child, and now must pay child support. If she had quit school and gone on welfare she could have kept custody of the baby. Again, it does not surprise me in the least that so many women choose abortion.
I advise heterosexually active males to be proactive and to teach their sons and other men over whom they have influence to do likewise. Men have an often deserved reputation of not wanting to use condoms. If we earned the reputation instead of fanatically insisting on condom and spermicidal insert use even when “the pill” or other hormonal contraceptive is in use, fathers-to-be would not face this agonizing and powerless situation nearly as often! A wise man accepts that when he completes a potentially reproductive sexual act, the results are henceforth both biologically and legally out of his hands. Many heterosexuals for this and other reasons choose non-procreative forms of sexual expression.
For Heathens, clergy or no, who counsel individuals who are either considering abortion, who have had one, or who have had a loved one choose one, I advise respecting individual freedom of conscience, providing emotional support and a listening ear, suggesting recourse to non-judgmental professional counseling when appropriate, along with encouraging and teaching future behavior that will minimize the possibility of another unwanted pregnancy.
I challenge our Heathen community to make resources, financial and otherwise, available on a case-by-case basis to help women who wish to continue with a pregnancy and perhaps also raise the child but at least temporarily cannot “go it alone.” I know that self-reliance is one of the Noble Nine but there are times when everyone needs help, help that to maintain the principle of Gebo can be returned to the community at a later date in one form or another. The pro-life Heathen who is actively working, both inside and outside of our religious community, to provide alternatives to abortion would earn my respect and very possibly my help, where the one who merely harps against the immorality of abortion and even tries to take that choice away from others does not. Our faith values action at least as much as words! I certainly do my part by discouraging adolescents, Heathen or not, from having sexual partners and as a backup by providing contraceptive education and supplies where appropriate (within my own family to adolescents of both genders at the custodial parent’s request).
I oppose wallowing in guilt over decisions which one in hindsight has come to see as wrong. It solves absolutely nothing, and in our religion penance and suffering, self-induced or not, do not bring redemption! Rather, seek to learn from your mistakes, pay your shild when possible and appropriate, and move forward with life and growth. That is what holds up your little corner of the Multiverse, and makes you a partner in the ongoing process of Creation with the Gods themselves. I would also like to encourage those Heathens whose lives have been touched by untimely pregnancies to feel free to share their decisions, the consequences, and their regrets or lack thereof with the community as a whole. I suspect that if/when this happens; we will hear a wide variety of stories and conclusions, all in their own way “good Heathen” ones.
In closing, it has been my experience that more often than not, an individual Heathen’s views on abortion are shaped by that person’s personal worldview and political philosophy rather than by Heathenism per se. Socially and politically conservative Heathens tend to be pro-life and socially and politically liberal or libertarian Heathens are usually pro-choice. This is not surprising since surviving Heathen lore has nothing to say on abortion one way or another. I think that the most that will happen in Heathendom in terms of an ethic of abortion is an open, ongoing, and evolving dialogue which hopefully will help individuals to make their own decisions and develop their own informed opinions. We Heathens cannot even agree if the Gods are "real" and if so what "real" means. I don't think we are going to come up with an abortion dogma or for that matter much dogma at all.
Our Heathen "world" is sometimes a scary one, but it is a free one. Freedom requires an acceptance of ambiguity and unanswered questions. Instead of "right" and "wrong" choices, there are instead a variety of needs to be considered: not only that of a life coming into being, but those of the family, society as a whole, and Earth herself, who at this time is being asked to care for far too many human lives wanting far too many resources. Seek to do the best thing as you see it. Not even the Gods themselves are all-knowing and all-powerful, so why should you expect to be? For those who need to be sure that they are doing the right thing when a difficult, irrevocable, and life-altering choice must be made and to never be haunted by doubts, regrets, and what-ifs, and who furthermore and more precisely need to be told what the “right thing” is in such instances, I suspect that Heathenism will in the long run not be a workable religious choice.
last modified 03/26/2004