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Panel examines history of Church’s position on abortion

Molly Madden | Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Professors Gary Anderson and Joseph Powers discussed the Catholic Church’s historical position on abortion and the power of good dialogue in discussing controversial issues Monday in a panel discussion on “Abortion in the Early Church and Rational Debate on Life Issues.”

“In the Greco-Roman world, the practice of getting rid of unwanted children was not only practiced but was encouraged,” Anderson, a professor of theology said. “This practice and its connection to abortion today can be seen indirectly in the Bible.”

Anderson said that stories in the Bible that are obliquely related to abortion are the stories that involve the elimination of young children, such as the passages in Exodus that speak of the Egyptian pharaoh ordering that all the Israelite male children be killed.

According to Anderson, the practice of eliminating unwanted children was commonplace in most cultures for several centuries.

“Scholars of late antiquity said that members of Greco-Roman societies thought that the Jews and Christian families were off because they kept all their young,” Anderson said. “This was not something that was common in that time period.”

Anderson said that while exposure was the easiest and most practiced means of getting rid of children during this time period, the Romans did know how to perform abortions, which were very painful and dangerous.

“You can imagine that during this time period, an abortion was not a pleasant experience,” he said. “But it was practiced; the philosopher Plato even said that women over the age of 40 who were pregnant should abort their unborn child.”

Views and practices such as these carried over throughout the centuries and affected the current debate on abortion.

“Most people have never read Roe v. Wade,” Anderson said. “Abortions, especially ones that allow for the killing of the child up until a day before the baby is to be born, creates a real moral dilemma.”

To combat this dilemma, Powers, a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, said that most successful way to convince people is through a good debate.

“As a society, I think we need to argue better,” he said. “A university is a great place where you can have rational people come together and discuss different points of view and engage in a good conversation.”

Powers said that starting a debate about issues of faith could mean encountering extreme difficulties.

“In rational debate, the truth is often hard to find,” he said. “When it comes to questioning faith, the truth is very difficult to discover.”

Powers said that when applying mathematics and science to faith-based questions, it becomes very complex and it is hard to try and prove anything.

“I find it very difficult where to draw the line when it comes to abortion,” he said. “In my mind, an embryo has just as much potential for life as anything else.”

An additional difficulty in arguing on religious issues is that religion tends to deal with issues that have overlapped from the public sphere. Powers brought up the issue of slavery in the United States in the 19th century as a subject that faced similar difficulties when it came to the argument of faith versus reason.

“The Catholic Church needed to come to a new consensus on slavery because there had been support for slavery from the Bible,” Powers said. “It took a long time to change the views on slavery and it could take a similarly long time to change the views on abortion.”

Powers said that the changing of the Church’s perspective on slavery should give hope to supporters of the pro-life cause today.

“If we continue to argue with faith and fact, the argument will advance,” he said.

Anderson agrees that the slavery model should give hope to opponents of abortion.

“There will be a development on the issue of abortion,” he said. “Pro-life is not just a Catholic issue; it is an issue that encompasses what Christians have been teaching for thousands of years.”