Original Link: https://wildhunt.org/2022/06/opinion-the-heathen-case-for-abortion-rights.html
By Lyonel Perabo
Even from across the Atlantic it is hard not to be exposed to news about what takes place in the United States. May it be elections, natural disasters, or shootings, we are pretty much guaranteed to hear about it quickly enough in most of the major European media outlets. As of late, one of the most noteworthy pieces of news in the U.S. is the seemingly imminent striking of Roe vs Wade, which, almost half a century ago, guaranteed American women the right of abortion. While abortion rights have been controversial for a long time, there is one aspect of the debate surrounding it which remains crystal clear: it is Christian churches, organizations, and personalities that are largely responsible for spearheading the movement to restrict or ban abortion. This is not only the case just in the United States. Here in Europe, where abortion is significantly less controversial and policed, Poland, maybe the most Catholic country in the entire continent, has seen repeated attempts by the Church to limit access to abortion, recently pressuring the government to ban abortion on the grounds of fetal defects.
In America, it was conservative, politically militant Christian groups, extremely active since the days of the Reagan administration, who, in the past decades, have made the most headways in terms of restricting abortion. While it is true that, as shown by recent Pew research center polls, that even among Christians, views on the legality of abortion vary widely, it remains true that virtually all American Christian Churches (with the exception of the Presbyterian and Evangelical Lutheran Churches) formally oppose the practice.
The Roberts Court, April 23, 2021 .Seated from left to right: Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr. and Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor .Standing from left to right: Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh, Elena Kagan, Neil M. Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett. .Photograph by Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States
Among these churches, white Evangelical churches, whose flocks are by far the most radical in their anti-abortion stance, clearly dominate the public debate. Organizations founded by or at the behest of hardline Evangelical Christians, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Council, the National Right to Life Committee, or Focus on the Family, just to name a few, all openly assign Christian theology and morals as the root of their activism. So, even if, again, Christians as a whole remain divided on the question of abortion, as is often the case with religious, ideological, or political extremism, it is the most zealous and active within the group that tend to steer the debate. And these radical Christian activists are by no means solely focusing their efforts on the issue of abortion, far from it. Many of these Churches and organizations’ aim to establishing a theocratic regime where their faith would dominate while members of alternative religious groups and other unaffiliated would become subservient to the new religious order.
It goes without a saying that, as Pagans, we cannot accept this.
While the fight against Christian nationalists goes well beyond the bounds of the abortion debate, it is one of the most significant fault lines dividing these religious radicals from the rest of society. Any wins for their side would no only embolden them, but directly contribute to the worsening of the lives of countless, often vulnerable women. From a moral and social perspective, challenging the anti-abortion movement is therefore self-explanatory, but what if one could defend religiously-sanctioned rights to abortion within Pagan – especially Heathen – spirituality? In the following paragraphs, I will try to make such a case for Heathen abortion rights. In the corpus of Old Norse sources that is often referred to as “Saga Literature,” one can find a handful of narratives that reappear numerous times, sometimes with little changes between them. One of these is the tale of the Christianization of Iceland. Generally thought to have occurred around the year 1000, this event was prompted by increasing division within Icelandic society caused by the adoption of the new religion by a segment of the population, as well as the often violent proselytism of the Norwegian monarch. As Christians threatened to secede from their heathen countrymen by refusing to follow the ancient pre-Christian law, Þorgeirr goði, the law-speaker of the national assembly, was selected to find a solution.
Following what suspiciously looks like some sort of magical/ shamanic ritual where he isolated himself and covered his body with an animal skin for a few days, Þorgeirr came back before the assembly to declare that:
Allir menn skyldi kristnir vera ok skírn taka, þeir er áðr váru óskírðir á landi hér. En of barnaútburð skyldu standa in fornu lög ok of hrossakjötsát. (“All the men should be Christian and take baptism, those who in the land were unbaptized. Yet that the exposure of infants should remain from the ancient law, as well as the consumption of horse meat.”) (Taken from heimskringla.no, based on the Guðni Jónsson edition of the Íslendingabók)
Considering that Íslendingabók is widely considered to be the oldest extant prose narrative in Scandinavia, and that variations of this tale are found in no less than five other medieval Icelandic texts (for example Njáls saga), one ought to consider the information preserved therein as among the most reliable that can be found within Old Norse Icelandic literature. This passage tells us two things: that Þorgeirr feared that the Christian Icelanders would bring division and conflict in the land, and that, despite figuratively bending the knee and agree to their demands, a number of concessions were possible. Besides the exposure of infants and the consumption of horse flesh, the text mentions as well private heathen sacrifices/ rituals as one last right heathen Icelanders would conserve following baptism.
While it is later stated that these few concessions were eventually overturned, it is telling that, for ancient heathens, the right to control reproduction was put on the same level of importance as the very act of worshiping the Gods themselves. One could thus understand that the practice of infant exposure must have been a deeply-entrenched one, something that was seen as being at the core of the ancient heathen religious identity and worldview.
Despite the fact that there unfortunately exist no significant surviving records of pre-Christian Scandinavian laws, scholars agree that the exposure of unwanted infants was a widespread practice prior to the Christianization of Scandinavia. Even centuries following the official conversion, laws still had to be drafted in places such as Norway, Sweden, and Iceland to criminalize the practice, thus strengthening the view that Þorgeirr goði’s saw the practice as being an important part of the traditional Scandinavian society and worldview. Modern researchers have long discussed the status of children in the harsh world of Iron Age Scandinavia, where infant mortality was likely to be quite high. Mathias Nordvig, in his book on Heathenry (reviewed on this very site some two years ago), argues that ancient heathen Norsemen had a very different understanding of personhood compared to us:
The old heathen way of naming a child is referred to as knésetja, placing a child on the knee. It would occur at the assembly, the þing, when the child was three years old, and not before. In the time before the child was named, it could in principle be abandoned without legal consequences. Doing so was the old Scandinavian way of “abortion.” Children would be left in the marsh, the forest, or to be taken by the ocean, especially if there was no way to feed them or if they were ill. (Ásatrú for Beginners. p. 87)
Comparative study of the exposure of unwanted infants and infanticide in other pre-Christian European societies such as ancient Rome and Greece paints a picture of a practice that, if not celebrated, was accepted as having its place in society, as being a part of life – and death. In times when abortion was fraught with considerable risks to pregnant women and birth control was unreliable at best, unwanted children simply could not always be tended to, and especially those who were frail, or those born during trying times, had unfortunately no chance to survive. Now that the evidence that the exposure of infants was an important part of the religious practices and worldview of pre-Christian Scandinavia has been presented, it is time to explain how this could prove relevant in the current abortion debate. (Those wishing to read more about pre-Christian Scandinavian infanticide may want to consult The Place of the Evil: Infant Abandonment in Old Norse Society by Sean B. Lawing and Selective female infanticide as partial explanation for the dearth of women in Viking Age Scandinavia by Nancy L. Wicker.)
If virtually all of the influential anti-abortion organizations mentioned earlier in the article do not hide the fact that they base their activities upon Christian beliefs and practices, most of them lobby as well about “religious freedom.” If, more often than not, this concept is only brought forward as a way to defend the use of discriminating practices and keep the state from interfering in the workings of churches and related special interest groups, it could be used against them in the fight for abortion rights.
The logo of the Satanic Temple [courtesy]
Most readers might already be aware of the 2021 lawsuit by the Satanic Temple by the Satanic Temple, a registered church under U.S. law, which was filled in order to challenge the anti-abortion “heartbeat law” that had recently been passed in Texas. While so far the Satanic Temple has not managed to gain much standing in the courts, one could argue that modern Heathen and Ásatrú groups could be able to go further and present an even stronger case. One such Pagan group might be able to argue, on the grounds of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that as the practice of infant exposure once was a core component of the Heathen religion and worldview, they should be allowed to have access to abortion services. While I do not advise any Heathen group or individual (or anyone really) to advocate for infanticide in 2022, one could simply adapt the philosophy of Þorgeirr goði: if Christians are to have their ways, maybe some concessions could be negotiated; in this case, why not argue that the right to access safe, medical abortion on request up to a certain number of weeks of fetal gestation could be an acceptable middle ground? All of this in the name of nothing else than the “religious liberty” so many of the aforementioned groups seem to cherish so much.
Yet although such a case might maybe actually have some standing in US courts, there is another aspect of the issue that must still be discussed. When Þorgeirr goði declared that everyone in Iceland had to accept the Christian faith, he did so not because he thought that the Christian god was the one true deity, or because he had been touched by the words of the gospel, or convinced by Christian missionaries. His act was instead informed by one main concern: keeping the nation united. “Höfum allir ein lög ok einn sið” – “Let all have one law and one faith.” Looking at the rise of Christianity in the European Middle Ages, it must have seemed as there was no way to stop this new religion, carried by the sword of kings and the laws of the Church. Submitting, at least in name, might have seemed the least dangerous scenario to men like Þorgeirr, who wished first of all to retain the peace and prosperity, ár ok fríðr, so dear to their ancient faith. This is not the year 1000, however – this is 2022. Christianity, if still alive and kicking, has lost, if not all of its power, at least its supremacy in many areas of the globe. When Christian laws and customs once dominated unchallenged, secular rule now prevails, and if there is still much to achieve before we, descendants of pagans, witches and heathens, can truly live in a world free from the rule of the Church, future seems significantly brighter than a millennia ago. If, waiting for the advent of true secular rule in countries still dominated by Christian law and culture such as America, Poland, and others, one must fight Christian secession with Pagan secession, so be it. But at the end of the day, one must not forget the words of Þorgeirr, and hope for one truly universal law, one free from the obscurantism of religious zealots, the only law where religious freedom, and freedom over one’s own body, and soul can be achieved.