Crossing the Line: Fetal Cemeteries

The Washington Post reported on Monday that “crosses used in an anti abortion demonstration at George Washington University were defaced last week and the school’s College Democrats organization has apologized for the vandalism.”

One thousand one hundred small crosses had been placed on campus grounds by the Young America’s Foundation and then stored in a closet shared by College Democrats and Republicans. One member of the College Democrats had drawn and written on some of the crosses, including a stick figure of a crucified Christ on one and draped a condom over another.

College Democrats were repentant, expelled the member involved, and invited College Republicans and religious groups to an interfaith summit.

Not nice to vandalize someone else’s property, but in political activism, kind of de rigueur. I remember being surprised as I walked up the steps to a lecture I was giving on pro-choice Catholicism at Georgetown and saw Father Richard McSorley, the noted peace activist, walking ahead of me with a student. Father McSorley stopped in front of a poster advertising the event and ripped it down. An act of vandalism for sure, but was it as some at GWU have claimed about the cross controversy, religious intolerance? “This was an act of religious intolerance done on university property cried Robert Lockwood, the president of the GWU chapter of Young America’s Foundation. Lockwood was “stunned”, “appalled”, and claims that “hundreds, if not thousands of students were offended.”

Politicizing the rituals of faith

It may well be true that many students were offended by the vandalism, but many students have been profoundly offended by the use of the cross as a political battle ax in the anti abortion war. Women of faith have told me they are enraged when they pass these crosses planted on campus which use Jesus to accuse women of murdering their babies. And they are frustrated when college administrators tell them this activity is covered by academic freedom. Academic freedom leads to scholarly enquiry. So let’s examine the religious validity of fetal cemeteries.

The notion that one can create a cemetery for fetuses actually highlights the fact that, the religious rituals of Christianity have historically never treated fetuses as persons. It is only recently that Catholicism, alone among Christian denominations has politicized the rituals of faith to drive home the point that abortion is wrong.

Miscarried fetuses were not baptized; they were not buried in coffins nor interred in cemeteries with the attendant rituals. This is not to say that miscarriages or still births or abortions are not serious and sad events, it is simply to say that for most of church history, it was understood that these are not persons. That church leaders from Augustine to Aquinas and to the leading theologians of today understood that early fetal life did not possess the qualities of personhood that were likely to result in God giving the fetus a soul. And without a soul, there was no person and no sacramental life. Aquinas thought those qualities most likely were acquired when boy fetuses were 40 days old and girl fetuses 80 days old. Augustine felt you could not consider abortion murder until the fetus was fully formed and highly developed. His view seems similar to that of the Supreme Court in Roe which consider viability a dividing line. Viability coincides to a considerable extent with higher brain development: a logical moment when the body might be ready to receive a soul.

I would hope that if the students at GWU decide to actually hold an “interfaith summit” on the cross controversy, the focus is not shallow chatter about respecting each other’s religious views, but rather a serious discussion of the content of the world’s religious views on abortion. What needs to be buried is the notion that religious belief about personhood is a settled issue.