Hansel, Gretel and Today’s Abortion Wars

Edd Doerr

Thanks to the Brothers Grimm, we are all familiar with the tale of Hansel and Gretel, the young brother and sister who were abandoned by their father and stepmother in the woods of medieval Germany. While the tale is fiction, it is actually a metaphor for a practice that was rather common during long stretches of history. John Boswell’s magisterial 1988 book, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance, goes into the matter in depth. Not only was abandonment common, but so also was the turning over of children to monasteries, where the shortage of wet nurses frequently meant starvation, and “overlaying,” the intentional smothering of infants, a practice largely ignored by authorities of church and state.

Why? Well, before the Industrial Revolution, the spread of literacy, and the development of science and modern medicine, life tended to be short and brutish. Women frequently died in childbirth; many men went through several wives, and thus there were many stepmothers. (Even today in the United States, it is estimated that about one-third of pregnancies experience some sort of difficulties). Contraception was unknown, and abortion was very dangerous. Population grew only very slowly until industrialization, science, modern medicine, and antibiotics made possible the burst of growth that is illustrated by the famous “hockey stick” graph. In my lifetime, world population has grown from under two billion to over seven billion.

Until now, women have been subordinated to men by custom, law, and religion. Women gained the right to vote in the United States less than a century ago, and even today women make up only 17 percent of Congress, though they now outnumber men in colleges and universities. Interesting insights into all this are provided in Joan Acocella’s excellent essay, “Turning the Page,” in the October 15, 2012, New Yorker. Contraception has become common in America only in the last century. The last legal barrier to contraception by married couples was removed by our Supreme Court only in 1965 and for all people in 1972. Legal abortion was approved in 1973 but today hangs by a thread in the Supreme Court.

Since the rise of the abortion-rights movement a half-century ago, Catholic Church officialdom has fought it furiously. After Roe v. Wade in 1973, evangelicals came to realize that if women could control their fertility, they could no longer be kept subordinate to men. So these two large streams of religious activists joined forces to combat the reproductive-choice movement, using arguments that will not stand scrutiny. Let us note that the overwhelming majority of Americans use contraceptives, and a majority oppose government impairment of the right to terminate problem pregnancies.

One strain of argument has it that fetuses are persons from the moment of conception, however defined, and therefore that abortion is equivalent to murder. This view, however, is of recent origin. Throughout most of its history, the Catholic Church did not hold the view that personhood begins at conception. Even Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Christian theologian, held that “ensoulment,” the beginning of personhood, did not occur until sometime later. The Vatican, the Old Boys Club on the Tiber, did not come to the position of personhood at conception until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Evangelical fundamentalists took the line that the Bible condemns abortion, which it does not, and defines personhood as beginning at conception, which it does not. What the Bible does say is that “God created man in his own image” (Gen. 1:27) and “formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). The Old Testament word for person is nefesh, which refers to something that breathes. If “in the image of God” means anything, it is that personhood has nothing to do with biology but, rather, with consciousness. When anti-choicers put such great emphasis on biology and heartbeats, they are being more materialistic than secular humanists. What has science to say about this? Simply that the human fetus is incapable of the main function of personhood—consciousness–until the cerebral cortex is wired up and functioning, sometime after twenty-eight to thirty-two weeks of gestation. That is the gist of the argument of the amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services in 1989 that I organized and that was signed by twelve Nobel laureate biologists and 155 other distinguished scientists.

Opponents of reproductive choice, contraception, and abortion do not have a leg to stand on. All they have is numbers of adherents willing to vote and to put pressure on politicians. And they do that rather effectively, as we have been seeing for the last thirty-plus years. What they want to do is exercise political muscle to have government impose on all women their non-consensus medieval misogynist ideology and weird theology.

Anti-choicers not only wish to outlaw abortion, except perhaps in cases of what the demented Todd Akin called “legitimate rape,” they want Planned Parenthood deprived of federal funding. They want church-related institutions not to have to include contraception insurance coverage in employee health plans. They want sexuality education in public schools to be limited to plumbing and “abstinence only” indoctrination. And many of them want public funds diverted (through vouchers or tax-code vouchers) to sectarian special-interest private schools that promote medieval misogynist ideology. They seem incapable of grasping that cutting back on contraception and adequate sexuality education actually increases the abortion rate. But some folks would rather not be confused by logic and facts.

Fundamentalists and their ultraconservative enablers seem to be so enamored of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale that they want to promote the creation of more Hansels and Gretels. And that is indeed a picture grim.


Edd Doerr is president of Americans for Religious Liberty, founded by humanist leaders Edward Ericson and Sherwin Wine, and a past president of the American Humanist Association.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.

Thanks to the Brothers Grimm, we are all familiar with the tale of Hansel and Gretel, the young brother and sister who were abandoned by their father and stepmother in the woods of medieval Germany. While the tale is fiction, it is actually a metaphor for a practice that was rather common during long stretches …

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