In a Just World

photo of Dr. Gloria Albrecht

Subject: Dr. Gloria Albrecht Interviewer: Alison Rostankowski
Transcripts: Cheryl McShane

The segments included in this interview* were recorded July 2001, as part of In a Just World a documentary on world religions, family planning, contraception, and abortion.. The documentary is a co-production of The Duncan Entertainment Group with WTTW-Chicago. Gloria Albrecht, Ph.D., is Professor and Chair of Religious Studies, University of Detroit Mercy, Detroit, Michigan. She is an ordained Presbyterian minister.

(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)

Could you talk briefly to the early views on women and sexuality as put forward by Luther or some of the early protestant reformers?
Reformers such as Luther and Calvin in terms of their views on human sexuality, quite frankly they didn't spend a whole lot of time developing views on human sexuality. For the most part they simply accepted what were the common understandings, the common teachings that that came out of those Christian societies at that time. Unfortunately the teachings that were common are ones that were rather negative towards human sexuality in general. The reformers inherit this tradition and don't really investigate it, they simply accept it. Now that doesn't mean things don't change. Things certainly change when clergy become married and Protestant clergy did become married. And I think things changed partly because in their return to scripture they encountered the Jewish approval of marriage, the Jewish honoring of marriage. And they could see that the disciples were married and so forth. Luther's take on that, of course, was that sexuality is a God given instinct. Most of us can't live a celibate life, therefore marriage is a gift from God to help us deal with this instinct and most of us ought to be married. Calvin saw marriage as more of a covenantal relationship. Both of them saw sexuality as responding to the need to procreate. So how should procreation be structured? Well it should be structured within a married situation. But in general, they're maintaining that sexuality is problematic, that women should be obedient to their husbands and women's sexuality is tempting. They don't really step back and take a look at those things in a new kind of way.

Speaking in general terms or specifically about the Bible, how do you interpret its perspectives on family planning and contraception?
Some people will say that the bible says abortion is murder, but I don't find that anywhere in the bible that the bible deals with abortion at all. The bible simply does not mention abortion. Those who claim that it does, typically do a couple of things. They may do something thematically. They may say the bible teaches us to love one another and then they jump and say that means loving the fetus, but the bible never makes that jump. Or they may sometimes use a lot of the social justice teachings in the bible-- concern for the poor and the weak and the vulnerable and then make the jump that the fetus represents the poor and the weak and the vulnerable. But the bible doesn't make that jump. Or they will take a passage and one is typically taken from the psalms where the psalmist talks about God's constant presence with the psalmist and the psalmist says, "even when I was in the womb you knit me in the womb." And what is not being understood there by biblical literalists is that this is poetry being written. This is not a scientific description of pregnancy or scientific valuing of the fetus. This is a wonderful beautiful statement of God's constant presence with us no matter what stage of development we may be in our lives. So I would argue the bible says nothing about abortion. To me that does not mean that the bible can't be a source of guidance for how to look at the issue of abortion. But I would say it gives us no simple rule that simply can be applied without some real theological interpretation and consideration.

How would you respond to somebody who would say that as a feminist scholar you are confusing political equality with religious equality. You know that you're putting all this history into a modern context. What is your response to that suggestion?
I think there's a couple of responses to the argument that the struggle for women's equality is somehow a political or cultural movement as opposed to being a true religious movement in terms of a faithful religious response to God. Let me just delineate a couple of ways of responding to that. One way, of course, is to simply say the bible is a cultural product and it is a product of the politics of its time. What you see there is male authority, and not all-male authority, but the male authority of elite males for the most part. So to think the bible does not reflect the culture and the politics of its day, I think, is ahistorical and unreasonable. A second possible response to that would be also to point out that there is, I would argue, an egalitarian thrust within Judaism and Christianity that is never not yet complete but the thrust is there. And you see it in the prophetic movement, you see it in the prophets and I think you see it in Jesus. So for example, modern scholarship can go back to the first century and to the early church and to the Jesus movement itself and find evidence of women being a part of that Jesus movement, women being disciples, women being heads of household churches, women being deacons and elders in the first century church. So that the move toward the re-establishment of a hierarchical and male dominated church is actually an unfaithful response to the egalitarian thrust that was in the Jesus movement. So I would argue against that that in fact the movement for women's equality while it is certainly a political struggle, while it certainly a cultural struggle is actually a faithful response to what God has been calling humans to be and to do for the thousands of years of our tradition, to learn how to create egalitarian society, to learn how to create the covenant community as Protestants talk about in which human beings are related to one another in a fashion where no group can define the parameters of another groups life.

What do you feel is the general Christian idea regarding the point that determines when a fetus becomes a person?
The issue that sometimes gets raised is the question of how to morally value the fetus. The first thing I'd want to say about that is it's a new question, quite frankly. It's a question that has arisen within the last hundred years maybe one hundred and fifty years. For most of the Christian tradition the debate around abortion was not a debate about what is the moral value of the fetus? If you go back into the first couple of centuries, abortion was always dealt with within the context of illicit sexual acts. So the issue until very recently has not been focused on the fetus. Well today that is the way the issue often gets framed. What is the fetus, what is the moral value of the fetus? The way I would respond to that is to first of all say that I don't know anyone who would deny that at every stage of development the embryo the fetus is human. I mean no one is going to say it is not of humanity. But I think the question becomes what is the moral value that we will choose to give to that aspect of humanity in it's various stages of development?

If I hear you correctly, you're making the argument that you can't pinpoint where life begins and that there's nowhere within the bible that says where life begins? Is that the frame of your argument or am I misconstruing that?
I would argue that life is a continuum, the sperm is alive, and the egg is alive. So if you want to pinpoint when does life begin then you're on an unending continuum. What I really want to raise though is the issue of how do we choose to look at any aspect of life morally and ethically? That's the choice we have to make. Science doesn't answer those questions. We know that the ovum is human, we know it has a unique DNA sequence. That doesn't tell us that we should give that ovum an absolute moral value that trumps every other moral value. And I think that's what is being claimed by those who argue that human personhood begins at the moment of conception and therefore if you've an abortion that's a killing of human life. So the question is what is the best moral way to look at this issue in the context of all that is going on in a woman's life and society? It's a moral decision to be made. It's not a scientific decision to be made in terms how should we value this developing potential human person.

If you weave that question into that moral realm, wouldn't one response simply be, you never know what God's will is for that child, you're making a moral decision that is not yours to make?
The argument is sometimes made is that making a decision about pregnancy about whether to terminate it or continue it is like taking the power of God to give or take life. And that's not a decision that that any of us should do. My question would be why do we always focus that solely on women's reproductive issues and not take that same concern to the rest of our human living? Now if I were to answer that question for myself, I would say the history of Christian ethics understands that values are always in relationship to one another and what's happening in the abortion issue from a fundamentalist point of view is that an absolute value is being placed on that ovum or that fetus. We don't do that in any other kinds of ethical dilemmas. That is, place an absolute value; say this is the only value that counts here. We don't do it in warfare; we don't do it when we're deciding how to distribute the goods of the world, the resources, food, anything like that. Now while I may disagree with a lot of the ethical decisions we make in terms of social issues and what not, I would claim that the question around abortion is also a social question. There will be social ramifications for placing an absolute value on the fetus. So that a woman, whatever her circumstances, wherever she is living, has no recourse other than to admit the absolute valuing of this fetus. That's a moral decision that seems to me to be way out of place that we don't do in any other context. Women all over the world are saying, there is a lack of medical care, a lack of access to contraceptives, a recognition that sexuality is not, in the Protestant sense, in the Protestant tradition, is not for the purpose of procreation only or solely and sometimes never. That it is a way of expressing love with another human being. Pregnancy can occur in that act when it's not intended, when there's not enough food to go around, in conditions of war, in conditions of rape and so forth My response would be we can't put an absolute value on the fetus. We value it but then its potential human life has to be weighed with all of these other situations and concerns and characteristics of life.

How would you characterize the current debate?
I think there are several sides in the current debate about contraception and abortion. I think you have a side of Christian ethics that argues from a kind of a biologically based, natural law context. I think you have another side characterized by fundamentalists who would then argue that human beings are sinful, human societies are sinful, there is only one true absolute source of truth about God's will, and that is the bible. And I think another prospective which is complicated but let me try to just summarize it would be that perspective which is sort of mainstream Protestantism which is wrestling with how do I understand the equality of women within the context of our modern society--as we value families and as we value life? How do we wrestle with and balance a variety of goods that sometimes come into conflict. I think I would see Christianity divided into those kinds of perspectives on things.