Wyrd Designs – Heathenry and Abortion

Wyrd Designs – Heathenry and Abortion January 25, 2011

Also see Galina Krasskova’s and Star Foster‘s posts on abortion.

Through the years I have been asked, especially by people outside of my religion, what stance if any that the heathen religion had on the issue of abortion. Unlike other religions (such as Christianity), there is nothing that specifically prohibits abortion within our religious worldview.

Ancient Heathens took a practical, not a religious, worldview as it applied to pregnancy and children. Two things were considered in the fate of a child: did the child appear healthy, and how would the child fit into the dispensation of inherited wealth, property and financial resources of the family/clan?

Mirror Cradle's Frigga Expecting

While we have plenty of evidence that sex was occurring between men and women of varying social strata, a man had to acknowledge the child as his own in order to provide financial compensation to the woman. A wife would probably have her child acknowledged, but other women may not have their children acknowledged, and then the child would become a financial burden upon the mother and her family. Could this child be supported? Could it be fed, and clothed? In an age before food stamps, and grocery stores, having an ‘extra mouth’ to feed without extra support, could mean that not only would that child go hungry, but other members of the household might as well. While this attitude may seem callous to some, it also is practical. By trying to feed one additional child, you could compromise the health of several members of the family, by curtailing the food intake the rest of the family would have had but now has to reduce to feed the new mouth.

More than this, there were a number of laws that existed to help curtail illegitimate children. While financial responsibilities are easily understood, a woman who had sex with a man that was not of worth was shamed, not for having sex, but rather because of whom she had sex with. In this sense women are keepers of the ancestral lines, a free-woman copulating with a slave, or outlawed man and having a child was a shame to her family, and the child would live a life denied of any benefits unlike those children born to different socioeconomic fathers could enjoy. While there are women like Samantha in Sex and the City, who have had a roll in the hay with the proverbial ‘bad boys’ for the mere pleasure of it, most of them wouldn’t want to consider having a family with those bad boys. Today, unlike in ancient Scandinavia, we are blessed with effective birth control, and ready access to them.

Outside of the financial ramifications of a child, the health of a child was also considered. If a child appeared to be deformed, or rather sickly, it wasn’t uncommon for children to be left outside to die, in some cases and with certain sort of deformities after Christian conversions, these children were sent to be baptized and then buried alive in the church cemetery. While the mere thought of this is abhorrent to many today, this custom didn’t exist out of an attitude of cruelty, but rather out of a practical attitude that could be described as merciful.

Life was very harsh back then. Most children didn’t survive out of their infancy, and even of those that did some scholars estimate that only 20% of the children lived to their fifth birthday. There was no American with Disabilities Act, no advancements in medicine that could help improve the quality of life for those born with deformities. The simple reality was that a child that could not work as ably-bodied as a normal child would not be able to support themselves, or contribute enough to the workload of the family to compensate for the time and materials spent on keeping that child alive.

When Viking children reached around five years old, they were expected to fully assist in the work of the family: working besides their parents in the fields, in the house, or wherever else their means of income might take them. By the time they reach their pre-teens most were doing the work of full adults. While modern child labor laws make this seem almost unreasonably cruel, you also have to remember that life was harsh for the adults as well. There are numerous instances showing that a woman was expected to work throughout her entire pregnancy, and after giving birth was required to return to work fairly promptly. One story has a pregnant woman while out herding the sheep, giving birth to twin boys unattended in the pasture, and she brought the children home that night. While this story may seem extreme, and there are a couple of other similar narratives, there are also narratives of the women having a little bit of rest before they were expected to return to work.

We see this practice of infanticide mentioned throughout various sources ranging from Iceland, Norway, and England, such as the Íslendingabók and Icelandic legal codes, as well as various Norse law codes. In England, we see the Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus imposing 15 years of penance for committing infanticide. The penance wouldn’t exist if the custom hadn’t been practiced already. Even after the Christianization of many of these formerly pagan areas, infanticide concerning children with visible birth deformities was still permitted by the Church well past medieval times.

While by no means am I advocating infanticide, the pre-Christian attitude concerning these children was that they weren’t even named until so many days after the birth and the child’s fate to live was determined. To those ancient pagans, one could almost argue that ‘life’ didn’t begin with the first breaths after childbirth (or as some argue today fertilization), but rather life didn’t begin until the moment the child was claimed and named by those in that culture.

With modern advances in medicine, we not only now know when we are pregnant within a matter of days of the magic moment of fertilization, but we unlike these ancient peoples have access to effective means of birth control as well as medically safe ways for the mother to undergo abortion, enabling us to avoid post-birth infanticide entirely.

Today, it is ultimately the choice of each Heathen woman should she find herself pregnant to make the choice she deems appropriate in her given situation. Those who face that choice consider can they support the child? Can they provide the child with a loving and nurturing home? I have seen the sort of emotional abuse that unwanted children have grown up in when their parents didn’t want them and only had them because their church-dictated their religious moral pro-life stance.  A woman might also consider what type of inherited luck would the child have? One such example of how inherited luck might play out in ancestral lines is looking at the genetic inheritance the child might have. For instance, if the child would be born with a hereditary but debilitating disease is it cruel to let such a child suffer? Beyond genetic inheritance, we also believe in a type of inheritance that is harder to physically point to, such as traits they might be prone to and general elements of luck that could negatively impact the child throughout their life. Sometimes there are of course complications from pregnancy meaning the child may be handicapped in some way, in those cases the mother must struggle with the issue of quantity of life versus quality of life.  Would she feel comfortable letting someone else adopt the child, if she did not feel up to the task of caring for it herself? Or in this particular circumstance, does she feel that abortion is the humane choice? And yes, I will argue that there are cases when choosing life isn’t always the humane choice.

This is sometimes in the community referred to as a rooftree issue, i.e. meaning it is a decision that only impacts an individual household as characterized by the roof under which they live. So if you’re an adult living on your own via independent means, you have an autonomous rooftree. A rooftree issue is understood in the community that those living outside of the rooftree (such as one’s religious kindred, neighbors, or even the community at large) really don’t have any business trying to tell you what to do.  While something like this can be construed as a rooftree issue, other items as they impact independent households can also fall under rooftree issues, such as curfew, chores, punishments for naughty children, divorces, inheritance, etc.

Personally, I believe that all women should have reasonable access to birth control, and to safe medical access to abortions. Even if you were to outlaw it, history has shown us that abortions would still occur, only then you’d have women in desperation going to unsafe places, who were sometimes maimed and occasionally killed in the process.

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