Abortion.

Not since medieval ponderings about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin has there been an issue so challenging to faith, so seemingly impossible to resolve.

When does life begin?

That is a question that science cannot answer. Not exactly, not yet.

By comparison, the ancient argument over dancing angels on pinheads -- a topic of importance to the days of Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus and William of Occam -- looks trivial. A thousand years hence, maybe the furor over abortion will appear just as irrelevant.

A woman's legal right to have an abortion was established by the Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, 17 years ago yesterday. On that day, the justices ruled by a vote of 7 to 2 that abortions during the first three months of a pregnancy are a matter between a woman and her doctor.

In the 17 years since, American women have had an estimated 23 million abortions.

Whether they will continue doing so in such numbers is in doubt. Last July, in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the court gave states broad powers to impose restrictions on abortions. Abortion is now the hottest issue on the agendas of legislatures in many states.

And so it is that the great moral question of the times -- a problem that knots the minds of philosophers and scientists alike -- is being decided by state legislators.

If the question is when does a person begin to exist, why can't society be guided by theologists rather than entry-level politicians?

It can. The problem is, the answer depends on the theology.

The world's religions differ vastly on the issue. One with 926 million followers is definite: A life starts with conception. One with 860 million believers is equally sure: a life begins 40 days after conception.

Here is a report of how, and why, the world's major faiths disagree.

At the heart of the dispute is the ancient question of whether an abortion is the murder of a human being or merely the removal of soulless tissue. Despite advances in prenatal medicine, this is not a question that modern science can answer. To a large extent, one's view of abortion is a matter of ethical and religious belief.

Christian positions range from that of the Unitarian Church, which supports the right to choose abortion as a legitimate part of the right to privacy, to that of the Roman Catholic Church, which under canon law automatically excommunicates any woman who has an abortion.

In the Orient, the issue has less intensity than it does in the West. Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists believe in rebirth, so most also believe that an abortion, however regrettable, will not deprive a soul of its one and only chance at life.

Under Islam, abortions are legal during the first 40 days of pregnancy, because the prophet Muhammad said that a newly-formed fetus is a seed that has not yet received the breath of life. Many Buddhists similarly believe that consciousness cannot arise in a fetus until it develops a brain, facial organs and a nervous system.

Here are the views of 29 major religious groups, 20 of whom are Christian, including 16 of the largest or most influential of the more than 100 Protestant denominations. (Membership figures are for the United States, and are taken from the 1989 World Almanac, unless otherwise noted.)

PROTESTANT

Presbyterian Church

The Presbyterian Church, with more than 3 million members, is one of the most strongly pro-abortion rights Protestant denominations. The church filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court last fall opposing the state of Missouri in the case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services.

In its brief, the church declared that its General Assembly "has repeatedly affirmed that, although abortion should not be used as a form of birth control, the abortion decision must remain with the individual, must be made on the basis of conscience and personal religious principles and must remain free of governmental interference." The church also argued that "the morality of abortion is a question of stewardship of life and abortion can, therefore, be considered a responsible choice . . . when resources are inadequate to care for a child appropriately."

In June 1989, the 201st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church reaffirmed these positions.

Southern Baptist Convention

In 1982, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination with more than 14.5 million members, resolved "that we support and will work for appropriate legislation and/or constitutional amendment which will prohibit abortions except to save the life of the mother." The Southern Baptists reaffirmed this resolution in 1984 and 1989.

As is true in other Protestant denominations, resolutions of the Southern Baptist Convention are not binding upon any individual Baptist or Baptist church. Nevertheless, the Southern Baptists are strongly antiabortion. Motions to allow rape and incest as exceptions that would justify an abortion were defeated by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1982, 1984 and 1989.

Richard Land, director of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission in Nashville, estimates that two-thirds of Southern Baptists favor government action that would restrict or outlaw abortion, but acknowledges that perhaps one-third of Southern Baptists (including former president Jimmy Carter) believe that even if one is personally opposed to abortion, it is not an issue in which the government should involve itself.

Land argues that antiabortion legislation is not an imposition of one group's morality on another, but protects an unborn child from the mother's imposition of her morality on the child.

Like other denominations, Southern Baptists base their views on several Bible verses. One is Jeremiah 1:5, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." Another verse, Exodus 21:22, is much in dispute. In the Revised Standard Version (and Jewish translations are virtually the same) the verse reads, "When men strive {fight} together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth."

Many Protestants and Jews point to the relatively light penalty of a fine as biblical authority that an abortion is not a murder, and that the fetus does not have the rights of a human being.

But Southern Baptists and other conservative Protestants disagree. They translate the word "miscarriage" as "premature birth." If a baby is born prematurely and "no harm follows," then there is only a fine. But if there is harm -- that is -- if the unborn baby dies, then it is a murder, and the penalty must be "life for life." So the same Bible verse is cited by clergy on both sides of the abortion question.

Baptist Convention

The Progressive National Baptist Convention, with more than 1.7 million members according to their own figures, and 99 percent of them black, has scheduled a meeting to determine its position on the abortion issue. However, Fred C. Lofton, president of the Memphis-based denomination, says that most Progressive Baptist ministers believe that an abortion is a killing, and is wrong except in the cases of rape, incest or if the life of the mother is in danger.

American Baptist Churches

In 1981, the General Board of the American Baptist Churches, with more than 1.5 million members, stated that "the integrity of each person's conscience must be respected; therefore, we believe that abortion must be a matter of responsible personal decision." By 1987, however, there was concern that the 1981 resolution was too pro-abortion rights. A new resolution in December 1987 declared, "We are divided as to the proper witness of the church to the state regarding abortion. Consequently, we acknowledge the freedom of each individual to advocate for a public policy on abortion that reflects his or her beliefs."

United Methodist

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the nation's second largest Protestant denomination with more than 9.1 million members, resolved in 1984 and reaffirmed in April 1988, that "our belief in the sanctity of unborn life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy . . . we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection."

Lutheran

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is a new denomination formed by the January 1988 merger of the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America, which had directly opposing views on abortion. The church has more than 5.2 million members.

In its first national assembly in August 1989 antiabortion forces objected to a church statement that encouraged "free access" to abortion services. The convention prevented a major confrontation by adopting substitute wording that calls on church leaders to help "couples and individuals explore all issues."

Missouri Synod

As recently as July 13, 1989, the convention of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, with more than 2.6 million members, reaffirmed its longstanding positions that the unborn "are persons in the sight of God from the time of conception," and that "abortion is not a moral option except as a tragically unavoidable byproduct of medical procedures necessary to prevent the death of another human being {such as} the mother." The convention welcomed "the Supreme Court's Webster decision as a necessary first step toward the full restoration of the right to life."

Last fall, the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, along with the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals, filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the state of Missouri in the case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. In the brief, the churches argued that "no level of inconvenience or discomfort of a human being should be a justification for terminating human life, even at its earliest stages, as is now permitted in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy."

Episcopal

Many of the 2.5 million Episcopalians are active in both the abortion rights and the antiabortion movements. The General Convention in 1988 reflected this division when it opposed "abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience," but also urged "that any proposed legislation on the part of national or state governments regarding abortions must take special care to see that individual conscience is respected, and that the responsibility of individuals to reach informed decisions in this matter is acknowledged and honored."

African Methodist Episcopal

Bishop John H. Adams, senior bishop of the Atlanta-based African Methodist Episcopal Church, with more than 2.2 million members, says that there are many different points of view within the church, and that as a body it has no official position on abortion.

Bishop Adams believes, however, that most members of the AME Church believe that "abortion is usually wrong except where a greater wrong would be involved, such as the cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in jeopardy." But he also says that most AME members believe that "people have the right to control their own bodies," and that it is "a decision of the woman and her family and not of the government."

Assemblies of God

In August 1985, the General Presbytery of the Assemblies of God, with more than 2.1 million members, affirmed that life begins at conception. Abortion is therefore "immoral and sinful" because "it robs the unborn person of the privilege of choosing to be an instrument of God's design." Rape, incest or the certainty of deformity do not justify abortion, but if the life of the mother is threatened, then "the diagnosis of attending pro-life physicians will be helpful in arriving at the proper conclusion." The Presbytery concluded by urging Christians to "actively support pro-life legislation."

United Church of Christ

In 1987, the Sixteenth General Synod of the United Church of Christ, with more than 1.6 million members, "while recognizing {abortion's} moral ambiguity and urging that alternatives to abortion always be fully and carefully considered," upheld "the right of women to have . . . safe, legal abortions as one option among others." The synod also urged pastors, members and local churches "to oppose actively legislation and amendments which seek to revoke or limit access to safe and legal abortions."

Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses, with more than 750,000 members, regard abortion as murder except when it is necessary to save the life of the mother. Along with Southern Baptists and other conservative Protestant denominations, they cite Exodus 21:22 as a biblical basis for this view. They also believe that life begins at the moment of conception. The April 8, 1988 issue of "Awake!" states that "since God gave no limitations as to the age of the unborn in his law expressed at Exodus chapter 21, arguments based on age {of the unborn} become moot."

Seventh-Day Adventists

The General Conference of the Seventh-Day Adventists, with more than 650,000 members, recently formed a Christian View of Human Life Committee, which met for the first time in April 1989. It is giving priority to the question of abortion and hopes to have a position on the issue soon.

Unitarian

In 1987, the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association with more than 170,000 members, reaffirmed "its historic position, supporting the right to choose contraception and abortion as legitimate aspects of the right to privacy" and its opposition to "all legislation, regulations and administrative action, at any level of government, intended to undermine or circumvent the Roe v. Wade decision."

Friends (Quakers)

Quakers, numbering more than 110,000, do not have priests or ministers and do not take stands as a body. They respect each other's individual consciences, and for this reason most Quakers are against government legislation that would prevent an individual from making a decision according to his or her own conscience. In a rare statement, the American Friends Service Committee in 1970 urged "the repeal of all laws limiting the circumstances under which a woman may have an abortion."

Church of Christ, Scientist

The Church of Christ, Scientist has no published membership figures. The Christian Science Committee on Publication stated recently that "matters of family planning are left to the individual judgment of members of our church," but noted that "methods which involve drugs or surgery would not normally be considered compatible with Christian Science."

The Christian Science Monitor, in an editorial on July 7, 1989, declared that "a woman's decision on whether a pregnancy should be brought to term should remain hers to make, free of the threat of state sanctions." The newspaper added that the state's interest in protecting unborn life "shouldn't be an open door to impose one set of beliefs regarding the formation of human beings on everyone."

LATTER-DAY SAINTS

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), with more than 3.8 million members, has consistently opposed abortion for more than a century. As recently as June 1989, church leaders issued a statement that "abortion is an attack on the defenseless and voiceless; it is a war on the unborn," and "fundamentally contrary" to the commandment not to kill.

The statement added that "the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as an institution has not favored or opposed specific legislative proposals . . . however, we continue to encourage our members as citizens to let their voices be heard."

CATHOLIC

Roman Catholic Church

The position of the Roman Catholic Church, with more than 52 million members in the United States and more than 900 million worldwide, is longstanding and well-known: that life begins at the moment of conception and that abortion is murder.

It is based on biblical verses, on church law from as early as 80 A.D., on the pronouncements of Pope Sixtus V in 1588 and Pope Pius IX in 1869, and most recently on the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, "Humanae Vitae." In the encyclical, Pope Paul VI declared that "directly willed and procured abortion, even if for therapeutic reasons, {is} to be absolutely excluded as licit means of regulating birth."

A woman who secures a completed abortion is automatically excommunicated under Canon 1398 of the Code of Canon Law, regardless of the stage of pregnancy at the time of her abortion.

According to Father Kevin Hart, Director of Family Life and Worship at the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., cases of rape, incest or the certainty of deformity cannot justify the killing of a fetus. Only two exceptions exist under Catholic law to the prohibition of abortion. First, if the life of the mother is at stake, then her family may choose which of two equal lives should be saved. Second, if a pregnant woman needs surgery, for example, if she has cancer and needs to have her uterus removed, and if the intention behind the surgery is to restore the health of the mother and not to kill the fetus, then an abortion is justified.

EASTERN ORTHODOX

Greek Orthodox Church

Followers of the Greek Orthodox Church, who number more than 1.9 million, believe that life begins at the moment of conception. According to Bishop Isaiah, Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, which has its headquarters in New York, the best example of the biblical basis for this belief is the Annunciation (Luke 1:31), when the angel Gabriel said to Mary, "And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus."

As early as 375 A.D., Saint Basil said "those who give potions for the destruction of the child conceived in the womb are murderers; as are they who take the poisons which kill the child." Today, Greek Orthodox canons prohibit abortion as the unjust killing of a human being, permissible only when it is necessary to save the life of the mother. But if a woman has an abortion and later sincerely repents of her sin, she can be forgiven and welcomed back into the church.

To those who argue that the fetus in the first few weeks of pregnancy is not a full human being, a Greek Orthodox Christian priest will reply that no one is fully human, but that everyone, from embryo to old man, has the potential to become fully human and achieve union with God.

Russian Orthodox Church

The position of the Russian Orthodox Church, with about 1 million members, is identical to that of the Greek Orthodox Church, according to Eric Weaver, secretary to the Metropolitan of the Syosset, N.Y.-based church. Followers of the Russian Orthodox Church believe that life begins at the moment of conception, and that abortion is never justified except to save the life of the mother.

JEWISH

Reform Judaism

Reform Jews, who number 1.3 million, permit abortion when the life or health of the mother is threatened by pregnancy. But for Reform Jews this exception is so wide that an abortion is permissible even when it is the "spiritual or psychological life" of the mother that is threatened, according to Rabbi Joseph Weinberg of the Washington Hebrew Congregation. The decision on abortion is the mother's, and she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy if she feels that is the appropriate. Rabbi Weinberg believes that, "A mother who does not want her child should not have to bring it to life." He adds that under traditional Jewish law, a life is not considered separate from the mother until its head is out of the womb.

In 1981, the Biennial Convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations reaffirmed its "strong support for the right of a woman to obtain a legal abortion on the constitutional grounds enunciated by the Supreme Court in its 1973 decision," and opposed "attempts to restrict the right to abortion through constitutional amendments. To establish in the Constitution the view of certain religious groups on the beginning of life . . . would undermine constitutional liberties which protect all Americans."

Conservative Judaism

The Conservative Jewish view of abortion is far closer to that of Reform Judaism than it is to Orthodox Judaism. Although many of the more than 1.2 million Conservative Jews are anti-abortion, many more are pro-abortion rights, according to Rabbi Jack Moline of the Agudas Achim Synagogue in Alexandria. Rabbi Moline says that he opposes government restrictions on a woman's right to have an abortion because he does not want "a conflict between good citizenship and an interpretation of God's will."

In general, Rabbi Moline says, Conservative Jews interpret the Halakha (the body of Jewish law that begins with the Talmud) a little bit more strictly than Reform Jews do. For example, Rabbi Moline does not favor abortions in the cases of rape, incest or the certainty of fetal deformity unless the health of the mother is jeopardized by the pregnancy. But like Reform Jews, Rabbi Moline interprets the "health" of the mother to include her mental health and well-being. So if the carrying of a child resulting from a rape were going to harm the psychological health of a mother, then an abortion would be permissible.

Orthodox Judaism

According to Rabbi Hillel Klaven of the Ohev Sholom in Washington, Orthodox Jews, who number about 1 million, are against abortion except in cases where the life or health of the mother is in jeopardy. Rape, incest or the certainty of a child's deformity are not permissible exceptions to the prohibition against abortion, and cases concerning the physical health of the mother are usually interpreted strictly. Still, circumstances can sometimes justify an abortion. For example, if a woman runs a risk of a permanent and serious disability should her pregnancy continue, then many Orthodox rabbis will allow her to have an abortion.

Although most Orthodox Jews oppose abortion, a sizeable number are also against any goverment interference in what they see as a religious matter.

MOSLEM

Islam

Moslems, with more than 2.6 million followers in North America and 860 million worldwide, allow abortion for any reason in the first 40 days of pregnancy, but do not permit any afterward, according to Muhammad Aglan, a professor of Koranic jurisprudence at Imam Muhammad ibn-Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The one exception is when it is necessary to save the life of the mother. A doctor must certify that an abortion is indeed the only way to save the life, according to Aglan. Rape and incest are not exceptions, he said, but the case of deformity in the fetus is a new issue for Moslem scholars to examine.

The scriptural basis for the choice of 40 days comes not from the Koran, which Moslems believe to be the word of God, but from the Hadith, the sayings of Muhammad, which were collected by a scholar named al-Bukhari in the ninth century. Muhammad described the fetus as being "40 days in the form of seed, then he is a clot of blood for a like period, then a morsel of flesh for a like period, then {at 120 days} there is sent to him the angel who blows the breath of life into him."

Some Moslems believe that abortions can be performed as late as 120 days into pregnancy, Aglan said, but they are a small minority. Most Moslem scholars agree on 40 days as a dividing line between legal and illegal abortions, since the actual number of days after the beginning of a pregnancy is difficult to determine. (About 50.3 percent of U.S. abortions are performed within six weeks, or 42 days, of conception, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, which studies and promotes birth and population control.)

EASTERN

Hinduism

There are more than 735 million Hindus worldwide. It is the view of every sect of Hinduism that the soul enters the fetus at the moment of conception, said Seshagir Rao, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. Therefore, traditional Hinduism does not permit abortion except in the cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother.

In modern practice, however, abortion in India today is legal and widely accepted. Under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1971, abortion in India is available to women even "in cases of contraceptive failure." Despite the Hindu doctrine against abortion, there is no opposition to legalized abortion from any major political party or group of Hindu priests.

There are two main reasons for this widespread acquiescence to abortion. First, India's population has tripled since World War II and is now well over 800 million. Second, as is true in Buddhist nations, abortion is not an inflammatory issue in India because Hindus, like Buddhists, believe in rebirth, so an abortion does not deprive a conscious entity of its only chance at life.

Sikhism

Sikhs, with more than 16.6 million followers worldwide, are divided on the question of abortion, but the issue is not the burning controversy among Sikhs that it is among Westerners. Although Sikhs are monotheistic, they also believe in rebirth, so an abortion is not necessarily the end of life for a soul.

Scholars agree that the Sikh holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, is silent on abortion and miscarriage. However, the scripture does say that "God sees man from the pit of the womb," and it also states that the purpose of human life is to have the chance to meet God. Some Sikhs, such as Gurpal Bhuller, a physician in Hopewell, Va., conclude from this that abortion is wrong. For "to deny someone a human existence is to deny him a chance to discover God."

Nevertheless, Bhuller allows for exceptions in the cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in jeopardy.

Other Sikhs, especially younger Sikhs, draw upon their religion's ancient tradition of women's rights, and agree with Inderjit S. Sekhon, a priest at the Guru Nanak Foundation of America in Silver Spring, who says that the decision to have an abortion "is the choice of the family involved."

Buddhism

Buddhists, with more than 100,000 followers in the United States and more than 300 million worldwide, are as divided as Christians on the subject of abortion. But it is not the burning issue in Buddhism that it is in Christianity because of the Buddhist belief in rebirth. A Buddhist does not believe that an abortion robs an unborn being of its one and only chance at life. Rather an abortion is more akin to a match, which having failed to light a candle, may yet light another.

Nevertheless, many Buddhists, such as Bhante Gunaratana, a priest at the Bhavana Society in Highview, W.Va., believe that consciousness arises at the moment of conception, and that abortion is a killing and is wrong. Gunaratana favors government laws that prohibit abortion and allow no exceptions except possibly the life of the mother.

Other Buddhists, such as Kenryu T. Tsuji, a priest at the Ekoji Buddhist Temple in Springfield, believe that the decision is one that a woman must decide for herself. While Tsuji acknowledges that all killing is evil, including the killing of insects and flowers, he emphasizes that the situation surrounding each pregnancy is different, and that there can be no rigid rules.

In Japan, a nation that is both Buddhist and Shinto, abortion is extremely common, available on demand and not opposed by any major political parties. Moreover, in the last 20 years, the Buddhist clergy in Japan has created a new rite for aborted fetuses called "Mizuko Kuyo," to relieve the anxiety of women who have had abortions, according to Gary Ebersole, director of religious studies at Ohio State University.

Zen Buddhism

According to Jiro Sensei, a Zen teacher at the Kashain Zendo in Washington, a decision on abortion cannot be dictated by others. The actual decision is not as important to a follower of Zen as the process of the decision-making itself. "A decision should be made in full awareness of its consequences, and should be made by the individual with a clear head, fully wide awake to the whole issue. Because if it is made by a person who is awake, he or she can live with the decision."

Shintoism

The Shinto religion, with more than 100 million followers, has no position on abortion, according to Ohio State's Ebersole, and most Japanese believe that the abortion decision is a personal rather than a governmental matter.

Masato Kawahatsu, a Shinto priest of the Konkoyo sect at the Konkoyo Shrine in San Francisco, agrees that the decision is personal rather than a governmental matter. He believes a pregnant woman and her priest should make the decision together, with the priest acting as a mediator between her personal concerns and the Divine Will.

Mark Weston is a freelance writer in Armonk, N.Y.