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Idolizing The Fetus: In Roman Catholic Theology, Mothers Take Second Place. JOHN M. SWOMLEY states that “ Fetal idolatry denies a woman’s right to control her body, her life, her destiny, all of which must be sacrificed to an embryo or fetus once she is pregnant.”  He shows this to be the basis for the violence resulting in over 1,700 attacks against reproductive health clinics during the past 20 years. “Fetal idolatry or the denial of reproductive freedom to women is the major battleground issue for both patriarchal and clerical control of women.”  From: HUMAN QUEST, MAY-JUNE, 1998



Idolizing The Fetus

In Roman Catholic Theology, Mothers Take Second Place



OPPONENTS OF ABORTION in America have attributed to fetal life a sacredness that is actually idolatry. The idol in Old Testament terms was inanimate, made of metal or stone. As such it was possible to attribute to it a tribe’s cultural or group interests and to worship it instead of God. Idolatry is therefore the absolutizing of a cultural or belief system as if it is sacred or of divine origin and therefore more important than human personality; it is something to which sacrifice must be offered.

Fetal idolatry denies a woman’s right to control her body, her life, her destiny, all of which must be sacrificed to an embryo or fetus once she is pregnant. The “right to life” movement succeeded in persuading or pressuring the Republican Party’s platform committee to adopt this statement: “The unborn child has a fundamental right to life that cannot be infringed.” This means that men and fetuses have a fundamental right to life but pregnant women do not.

In other words, a woman’s life, health, or a family dependent upon her income are supposed to be beyond her control.

Fetal idolatry is bolstered by two other idolatries. One is patriarchy and the second, akin to it, is religious hierarchy. Both are evident in the subordination of women to men, who have historically made political, economic and religious decisions for women. Patriarchy is not just domination by men; it Is clearly evident in clericalism, a religious system of domination which, in this context, is based on the attempt to make a virtue out of women’s subordination.

The Roman Catholic church and some Protestant churches, notably the Southern Baptist Convention, have elements of fetal, patriarchal and clerical idolatry, evident in their control by men, who refuse to ordain women or use gender-neutral language, and who oppose reproductive freedom for women.

Pope John Paul II, for example, in his encyclical Laborem exercens, has written that society’s role is “to make it possible for a mother to devote herself to taking care of children and educating them in accordance with their needs... Having to abandon these tasks in order to take up paid work outside the home is wrong from the point of view of the good of society and of the family when it contradicts or hinders these primary goals of the mission of a mother.”

This patriarchal approach is increasingly out of date as millions of married women have to work to help sup port a family; and fathers as well as mothers share in child care, household work and the education of children. Nevertheless patriarchy still exists.

Fetal idolatry or the denial of reproductive freedom to women is the major battleground issue for both patriarchal and clerical control of women. Unfortunately, unquestioning acceptance of an idolatry often leads to intimidation and even murder of those who take a different position. The idolatry of white superiority led to the violence and intimidation of blacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other groups when racial equality became an issue in our society. flat violence, included lynching, burning of black churches, and separate accommodations on trains and in restaurants. flat violence was, in fact, tolerated by others who did not personally engage in it.

Similar violence is being used today to bolster fetal idolatry. An editorial in the January 31, 1998 Kansas City Star, referring to the lethal bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, said:


“Acts of violence by persons opposed to abortion go back many years and have taken many forms, including shootings, bombings and tires at clinics. Before the latest bombings, five adults had lost their lives and others were injured. Last year alone 13 clinics were the targets of bombs and arson.”


The editorial also said, “Others in the anti-abortion movement acted as if this murder and maiming were acceptable ways to protest against laws that protect women’s access to abortion clinics.”

There is much more evidence of violence. During the past 20 years there have been over 1,700 attacks against reproductive health clinics and there is no evidence that major religious leaders of the “pro life” movement have engaged in any effort to stop the violence. Women have also been imprisoned on buses and cars and harassed by “Operation Rescue” groups as they enter clinics.

Susie Blackmun, the daughter of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun who wrote the Court’s opinion in the Roe v. Wade decision, described tens of thousands of hate-filled letters sent to her father. “The death threats cost Dad his freedom to drive; he had to be chauffeured to and from work by Court police. When he traveled, U.S. marshals accompanied him. ... they sometimes camped out in the driveway when he stayed with us. If we ate at a restaurant they sat at the next table.”


A Boulder, Colorado physician, Dr. Warren M. Hem, has to work behind layers of bullet proof windows after five shots were fired through the front windows of his office. In 1989 “Operation Rescue” leader Randall Terry with his followers gathered in front of his office while Terry publicly prayed for the doctor’s execution. In 1993, following the assassination of Dr. Gunn, Terry in his broadcast publicly called for Hem’s assassination. Dr. George Tiller was shot the next week in Wichita, and on January 22, 1995 the American Coalition of Life Activists announced a hit-list of the first thirteen doctors they wanted eliminated.

Dr. Malcolm Potts, Professor of Population and Family Planning at the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley wrote:


“The right to life warriors who have slain health professionals working in abortion clinics are behaving exactly like those who fought in religious wars four hundred years ago. The idea of respecting those whose beliefs are different and even (most difficult of all) fighting to pre serve the rights of others to practice a set of beliefs you yourself reject, is a noble idea. But this noble idea is for ever threatened by the brute temptation to coerce others to your beliefs by the sword, the noose or the prison cell.”


No pro-choice organization or individual, by contrast, has called for or practiced violence. It is the toleration and even practice of violence by right-to-lifers that is one aspect of idolatry. Fetal life is such a ‘sacred’ value that existing persons who differ are threatened and killed.

Further evidence of fetal idolatry is the priority given to fetal life over the very life of the woman. This is evident in Father Patrick Finney’s book, Moral Problems in Hospital Practice, published under the imprimatur of the Archbishop of St. Louis, using a question-answer form:

Q. If it is morally certain that a pregnant mother and her unborn child will both die, if the pregnancy is allowed to take its course, but at the same time the attending physician is morally certain that he can save the mother’s life by removing the inviable fetus, is it lawful for him to do so?


A. No, it is not. Such a removal of the fetus would be a direct abortion.


In other words, when this religious law is carried over into politics, the deprivation of liberty for women is a political statement that their lives are less important than religious legalism.


Fetal idolatry is also evident in the idea of compulsory pregnancy. The right to life movement assumes that women’s bodies are in effect public property. Once they are pregnant they must remain so, no matter what hap pens to a woman’s life, health, family, other children, or her vocation. In other words, the “pro-lifers” insist that women whose rights are legally recognized in other con texts must be subordinated to a fetus whose rights are not recognized legally. If the right to life movement should win, women who have abortions and medical personnel who provide them would become criminals. Fetal idolatry shows no mercy. It assumes that sexual intercourse is a contract for pregnancy, although there are ample studies that reveal that women do not always choose inter course, but are forced into it, in or out of marriage. One of these appears in Diane Russell’s Rape in Marriage.

Those who insist that women who marry surrender their right to control when, where and whether to have intercourse, with or without contraception, are simply insisting that marriage is a patriarchal institution and not a relationship of equality.

Fetal idolatry, when contrasted with attitudes toward war, is wanting in consistency. The “pro-life” advocates do not publicly seek disarmament or even the abandonment of nuclear weapons or land mines, which kill children and women, many of them no doubt pregnant. They do not concern themselves with persuading the United States to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, or with the fact that as many as 250,000 children, some as young as eight years old, are serving in government armies or armed rebel-groups around the world.

Those involved in fetal idolatry generally do not even try to prevent unwanted pregnancies either by promoting the use of contraceptives during sexual intercourse or afterward to prevent implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterus. In fact, the Vatican’s opposition to abortion also bans the use of contraceptives.


One of the major critiques of idolatry about unborn life is its lack of concern for the abundant or purposeful life to which all of us should be called. No one of us should be an unwanted child or have to experience emotional abandonment or lack of compassion and love in childhood. Yet unwanted pregnancies, especially involving school-age children unprepared for family responsibility are occurring by the thousands each year. Some are produced as the result of consensual sex, but many are the result of rape and incest.

The Alan Guttmacher Institute reported in 1996 that 7 in 10 women who had sex before age 14, and 6 in 10 of those who had sex before age 15 report having had sex involuntarily.

A federally funded 1992 study of 4,000 women projected that some one million children are raped every year. The study was done by the National Victims Center, a private advocacy organization.

An article in the August 9, 1993 In These Times states that “of some 5,000 births among California junior high school girls ages 11-15, only 7 percent were fathered by junior high boys. 4 in 10 were fathered by high school age boys 16-18, and more than half by post-highschool age adult men ages 19 and older. Male partners of mothers age 12 and younger averaged 22 years of age. The author, Mike Males, also asserts that there is clear correlation between poverty and teen pregnancy. Mississippi, with “a 1990 per capita income of $12,735, has a youth childbearing rate three times higher than Connecticut” where per capita income is $25,358, and ‘Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhood have teen pregnancy rates 20 times higher than its richest neighborhood.”

He concludes that “teen pregnancy is not simply the result of dumb, immoral, ignorant or careless kids. Rather, early parenthood is an index of the levels of poverty, abuse and bleak opportunities afforded young women and their efforts to escape their harsh conditions by alliances with older partners - a survival strategy.”

We do not know how many of these teen-age women sought abortions or how many gave birth to children who also face poverty, abuse, or other harsh conditions. We should know that the idolatry that tries to prevent contraception in circumstances such as these condemns babies to the same circumstances their parents had to face. Fetal idolatry that in itself is immoral, also has tragic implications for society as a whole. *


The Rev. Dr. Swomley is Emeritus Professor of Social Ethics, St. Paul School of Theology, Kansas City, Missouri. He has a Ph.D. in political science and is Associate Editor of The Human Quest.




MAY-JUNE, 1998

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