Christian fundamentalists campaign to repeal abortion rights, but the notion that a foetus has rights is relatively recent. German socialist Rosemarie Nünning looks at how attitudes to abortion have changed over the millennia.
Every year in Berlin Christian fundamentalists organise processions with thousands of participants. They are the most radical representatives of the notion that a fertilised egg should be regarded as a human being because at conception “quickening by God” takes place (the clump of cells acquires its own soul). For this reason they consider abortion murder and demand a complete ban.
With their campaign the so-called “pro-lifers” remind us that the right of women to make decisions about their bodies and their lives is still not something that can be taken for granted. The forms that this particular oppression has taken and the ideologies associated with them have varied considerably in the course of history.
The idea that a clump of cells or a foetus should be treated as a fully formed human being whose life should be protected for moral and legal reasons is relatively recent.
In hunter-gatherer societies, sometimes described as primitive communism, where people were not divided into classes and oppression was unknown, various methods of contraception, abortion and infanticide were known. European Jesuit missionaries sent to support the colonisation of America from the 17th century onwards report infanticide directly after birth, for example, in the case of twins: “One is sacrificed because they believe that a mother of two children does not have sufficient milk for both.” In New Guinea abortion was “celebrated with a small meal”, according to anthropologist H J Nieboer.
At the same time the Jesuits noted the loving treatment of children: “Incidentally nobody dares to hit them or to work strenuously to improve them,” reported the Jesuit Lafitau from the area known today as Canada.
The new science of ethnology was already researching methods of contraception in “primitive” societies around 1900. Practitioners were influenced by the overpopulation theories of Thomas Malthus a century earlier, arguing that population growth was unsustainable — and that poor people had no right to reproduce. They discovered contraception, abortion and infanticide. Abortions were carried out mechanically (for example by hitting the abdomen) or by ingesting plants; one researcher even spoke enthusiastically of “Malthusian plants” that served as contraceptives.
Abortion and infanticide were mostly a necessity to ensure the survival of the clan. “Primitive women” gave “surprisingly modern reasons” for contraception, for example, having suffered several miscarriages or difficulties with raising even more children. There was no moral barrier to these choices because children were only considered fully-fledged people when they reached sexual maturity.
This sort of birth control supported by the community went into decline with the development of private property and class societies. New means of production, such as the ox-drawn plough or fishing boats which enabled travel far out to sea, made the production of a food surplus possible. At the same time, because of pregnancy and childcare it became more difficult for women to participate in this work. The surplus product began to concentrate in the hands of men and ultimately in the hands of only a few men. The egalitarian clan where all activities were considered equal was replaced by the family with the man as its head — “patriarchal” power. In order to enable inheritance of property in the male line and to ensure that the woman did not bear another man’s child, she was subjected to the dictates of monogamy, which necessarily also meant the control of her body.
Friedrich Engels called this the “world historic defeat of the female sex”, in which “the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male”.
The subordinate position of women can already be seen in the early documents of the city states emerging in Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago. The cuneiform codices (laws) primarily list the rights of the man. The first mention of abortion is to be found in the codex of the city of Ur from about 4,000 years ago: If a man hits the daughter of another man and she suffers a miscarriage, he has to pay 20 silver shekels, in the case of the daughter of a poor man five shekels and in the case of a slave two shekels. This is what the “patriarchal” family meant: abortions carried out against the will of the head of the household (the father or the husband) were regarded as damage to property, for which compensation had to be paid.
A similar regulation was later inserted into the Old Testament (Exodus 21:22). Here it is a question of two men getting into a fight where a woman gets in their way and suffers a miscarriage. The guilty party has to pay a fine determined by the husband. This is the only mention of abortion in the Bible – and it is only mentioned in the context of damage to property, something that is of great annoyance for Christian fundamentalists.
The first time that deliberate self-abortion is penalised is in the laws of the Middle Assyrian Empire around 1200 BCE, where the penalty is public impalement. The public punishment is an attack on women, but also an early sign that the state was trying to supersede patriarchal power in the family and regarded abortion as a violation of the interests of the state.
There was no moral condemnation of abortion, and this continued in the subsequent Greek and Roman states. The Greek philosopher Plato envisioned an elitist selective breeding programme like that for breeding fine hunting dogs, where “the best men must cohabit with the best women in as many cases as possible”, while “the offspring of the inferior” were to be exposed to the elements. His pupil Aristotle advocated abortion for the purpose of optimising the population, “when couples have children in excess”. However, Aristotle also introduced the idea that at a certain point the foetus gained sensation and life (in the case of a male foetus the 40th day and a female one the 90th day) and so abortion should only be available up to that point.
In Rome abortion was so common among women of the upper class that the poet Juvenal recommended that they sleep with infertile men (eunuchs). In accordance with the social constitution, which was still moulded by patriarchal ideas, this went unpunished as long as the husband agreed.
Bans and limitations on abortion, ideas about “quickening” and control of women’s bodies can be found in all world religions. Here and now, however, we have to take up the question primarily regarding the politics of the Christian church. In Europe, Christianity had been the ruling ideology of the Roman Empire, but its bureaucratic apparatus stretching into many countries survived the empire’s fall in the west in the 5th century CE.
In the subsequent centuries the church translated its economic power, based on monasteries, exploitation of the peasantry and colonisation, into political power over the fragmented feudal society. Claiming “fathers’ rights” for the god of Christianity and using women’s oppression as a strong instrument of division was a challenge to unlimited patriarchal rights in the family. The church took control of the members of society, including their sexual behaviour, which was supposed to serve exclusively for procreation. Taking control of social behaviour went hand in hand with evoking guilt, shame and fear, a culture of denunciation and inquisition.
There was finally a general prohibition of abortion from “conception”. Up till then the theology of the Church Fathers had swung back and forth through debates about the time of the “quickening” of a foetus (following Aristotle), after which an abortion was to be regarded as a mortal sin — which did, at least, allow a time period during which an abortion was permitted without penalty. By around 1200 CE even contraception went into Canon Law as manslaughter — without, however, abolishing the time limit on abortion. The penalties imposed by the church could mean several years of “penance” on bread and water.
The clamping down by the church was also a reaction to the widespread heretical movement of the Cathars between the 12th and 14th centuries. They attacked the power and wealth of the Roman Church and enjoyed great support among women. They viewed procreation, although not necessarily sex, as sinful since the world belonged to the Devil. They were bloodily repressed.
In practice there was still contraception, abortion and infanticide during the Middle Ages, as well as huge amounts of traditional lore and manuals. Even one 13th century pope had previously as a doctor written prescriptions mainly for poor people. Nuns in Strasbourg complained in the 14th century that dead children were occasionally found on their premises, that monks from the Dominican Order gained access to their convent and that nuns kept getting pregnant.
In the criminal files of the 16th and 17th centuries it is primarily domestic servants and farm girls that are listed as carrying out abortions. Among the abortifacient substances used was the savin juniper – the socialist Bebel wrote that it was grown “on every farm” in south western Germany because of its properties. In France in the 19th century there was still infanticide in the countryside while women in the cities had access to abortifacients.
With the rise of capitalism the church was superseded as both an economic and a political power. The secular judiciary drew on the ideology of the church as a useful instrument of oppression and social control. While in 1869 Pope Pius IX proclaimed the “quickening” of the foetus from the moment of conception, in 1871 the newly founded German state enacted Clause 218 of the Criminal Code in the section called “Crimes against life”. It provided for up to five years penal servitude for an abortion carried out by the woman herself and up to ten years for those who helped her.
Alongside the misery created in the towns and cities by industrialisation the number of abortions in Germany rose to several hundred thousand. Because contraceptives were forbidden, poor women resorted to strong poisons, kicks and sticks in order to provoke a miscarriage — while rich women consulted their family doctor. Clause 218 was understood as a means of oppressing women and as a class-based clause, which demanded the common struggle of both women and men.
In the Weimar Republic (Germany 1919-33) the largest movement for the legalisation of abortion and the self-determination of women to date arose under the slogan “Your belly belongs to you”. Into it flowed the movement against the “Homosexual Clause” 175 (also enacted in 1871), the sexual reform movement, radical women’s liberationists and the Communist Party. It was fuelled by the complete repeal of the ban on abortion in post-revolutionary Russia in 1920.
Under Nazi rule every progressive movement was eliminated. The fascists saw abortion as “race treason” and a threat to the “German people”, while Jewish women were subjected to forcible abortions.
The fight against Clause 218 was taken up again in West Germany by the women’s movement that emerged from the struggles of 1968, and finally the law was liberalised. Since then the reactionary religious “pro-lifers” have been attempting to turn the clock back.
Thanks to their pressure, a reform of the clause in the 1990s explicitly inserted for the first time “protection of the unborn” and thus granted a greater right to life to the foetus than to the pregnant woman.
The growing processions of the Christian fundamentalists must be a warning to us. They are cultivating close relations with the radical right wing AfD (Alternative for Germany), which has already been campaigning in elections for Clause 218 to be tightened. Wherever these forces have been able to prevail, truly barbaric things happen in the name of the protection of life. In El Salvador, where at the urging of the Catholic church a total ban on abortion was imposed at the end of the 1990s, women are serving sentences of up to 40 years imprisonment for having an illegal abortion. The convicted women are primarily poor indigenas, while rich women travel abroad for an abortion.
The influence of Christian fundamentalists is increasing in Germany, as was shown in North Rhine-Westphalia at the end of 2013. When a student was raped, two Catholic hospitals refused to examine her and secure the evidence because they would then have had to prescribe the morning-after pill, which would have been a violation of their “Christian ethos”.
We are confronted with the task of stopping both the march of the “pro-lifers” and the AfD and defending the rights already gained through struggle. However, history also shows that women’s oppression and class society go hand in hand. And it is working class women, their partners and their families that have to suffer most when abortion rights are limited or banned altogether. Therefore it is also ultimately a question of a common struggle for a different world, a socialist society without oppression and exploitation.
Rosemarie Nünning is a member of Marx21 in Germany. This article was first published in German in Marx21 magazine. Translated by Einde O’Callaghan