In case you were unaware of your need for a book titled A History of Pregnancy in Christianity, University of Oslo religious history professor Anne Stensvold’s new release, consider this. Every person on the planet exists because of a reproductive act (sex, usually) and a nine-month period of a care by a particular woman, inside her body.
That human beings emerge in that way should be of interest to us all, not just to doctors or scientists or baby-shower attendees. That Christians should have given some thought to the condition also should not surprise. Stensvold recognizes that perhaps they have not given enough thought to it: “Although pregnancy and birth are foundational events and the birth of the Savior is a central theme in the Christian calendar and cultural representation, pregnancy does not receive much attention.” Accordingly her book registers some of the occasions wherein church institutions, theologians, and believers tried to comprehend the way we come to be. Beyond the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus, of course, these include Christian adoption of Greek theories crediting the father’s seed with creating the child; St. Augustine’s tracing of the transmission of Original Sin through that seed; the adaptation of Aristotle’s thought offered by St. Thomas Aquinas, noting God’s ensoulment of the male fetus at 40 days, the female at 90; the “churching” of women to bless them after childbirth; the seventeenth-century research on cells and genetic inheritance done by many, including priests, monks, and pious Protestants; and the related controversy that followed, between those who argued that embryos developed in distinct stages and those who posited that we were “preformed,” folded up in either sperm or egg, so that all humans who ever had lived were once encased in the ovary of Eve.
The title ought to deliver more than this book does. While the author appreciates pregnancy as “women’s voluntary gift and their contribution, body and soul, to the future,” the book passes quickly over much rich material. Regrettably, as the history approaches the twentieth century, instead of taking up the culture of childbearing in an age when the secret life of the fetus is common knowledge, the spotlight shifts to abortion. Stensvold sorts two opposing camps: progressive, equality-minded modern folk against conservative Christians intent on the subordination of women, both sides focused on abortion.
But abortion does not deserve to be the focus, the bottom line, of a book on the history of pregnancy in Christianity. The work of pregnancy—physical, volitional, conscious, emotion-laden—is a topic worth moral and historical inquiry on its own, without having to function as prologue to abortion argument. Too often, in Christian circles as well as the cultural at large, pregnancy only gets serious consideration beyond mommy-crowd clichés in context of embryo manipulations—or abortion.
An exception to this comes in James Mumford’s 2013 book, Ethics at the Beginning of Life: A Phenomenological Critique. Mumford’s excellent study does enter the lists of abortion controversy, as he displays the poverty of contract theories, like those of Hobbes or Locke, for understanding humans’ relationships to each other, and reaches back to Gregory of Nazianzus to explain how the imago Dei calls forth respect for the life of each.
From the title you’d hardly guess Mumford’s is a book about pregnancy. But it is among the best books on the topic—here assayed under the term “human emergence”–I know. Mumford insists that ethical significance rests in the fact that humans do not spring forth like mushrooms, even that “[w]e do not receive our children straight from the hand of God. Rather they arrive, as we have seen, because parents ’have a hand’ in the generation of those whom they are to rear,” and until birth, this activity in the most immediate way falls to the mother.
To appraise it well, don’t bring abortion into the conversation too soon.