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Religion Must Not Substitute Science in the Abortion Debate

The United States is more diverse now than it has ever been. Views on abortion vary widely, both among and within religious denominations.

November 5, 2021
View the entire Abortion Rights Are Essential to Democracy series

When Gov. Greg Abbott signed Texas law S.B.8, he provided an oft-heard reason for why the Lone Star state is effect­ively banning nearly all abor­tions: “Our creator endowed us with the right to life.”

Abbot­t’s reli­gious invoc­a­tion to justify Texas’s law, of course, begs the ques­tion: Whose vision of a creator, exactly? The United States is more diverse now than it has ever been. We are a coun­try of over 330 million people who prac­tice every major world reli­gion, with a grow­ing number prac­ti­cing “noth­ing in partic­u­lar.” Views on abor­tion vary widely, both among and within reli­gious denom­in­a­tions.

All these perspect­ives are protec­ted equally under the U.S. Consti­tu­tion—by the Estab­lish­ment and Free Exer­cise clauses of the First Amend­ment—which together protect the funda­mental right to hold reli­gious beliefs of one’s choos­ing while ensur­ing that the govern­ment remains neut­ral when it comes to matters of faith. 

Among the most deeply shame­ful moments in our nation’s history have been the legal system’s justi­fic­a­tion for brutal racism and discrim­in­a­tion on the basis of reli­gion—go­ing back to at least 1852, when the Missouri Supreme Court upheld enslave­ment in Amer­ica in an opin­ion assert­ing, “The intro­duc­tion of slavery amongst us was …. in the provid­ence of God.” 

Alarm­ingly, we’re approach­ing a disturb­ing coming­ling of reli­gion and govern­ment on the issue of abor­tion in several states, not limited to Texas. In a session of the Arkan­sas legis­lature this year, a state senator proclaimed, “There’s six things God hates, and one of those is people who shed inno­cent blood.” 

A Missis­sippi state repres­ent­at­ive who co-authored the 15-week abor­tion ban being chal­lenged in the Supreme Court this term in Dobbs v. Jack­son Women’s Health Organ­iz­a­tion asser­ted in her defense of the ban that she “believes that chil­dren are a gift from God.” Several of her colleagues in the Missis­sippi House of Repres­ent­at­ives have like­wise invoked their personal reli­gious views to justify uncon­sti­tu­tional restric­tions on abor­tion.

Their constitu­ents, of course, may disagree on the moral­ity of abor­tion. One need only look to the vast array of “friend-of-the-court” briefs filed in the Supreme Court in Dobbs to under­stand the sheer complex­ity and span of reli­gious views that coex­ist in the United States. For example, Cath­ol­ics for Choice and the U.S. Confer­ence of Cath­olic Bish­ops put forth compet­ing views of what it means to adhere to the Cath­olic faith. One group’s brief advoc­ates for repro­duct­ive rights within the teach­ings of the church, while the other inter­prets those same teach­ings to portray abor­tion as an “unspeak­able crime.” 

The same goes for vari­ous Jewish organ­iz­a­tions and reli­gious lead­ers who embrace a wide range of under­stand­ings and inter­pret­a­tions of the role and permiss­ib­il­ity of abor­tion in Juda­ism and have filed duel­ing briefs. Some Luther­ans and Prot­est­ant groups have registered their support for the Missis­sippi ban, while some Muslim, Pres­by­terian, Human­ist and Athe­ist groups want the court to strike it down. 

The very prob­lems the First Amend­ment was designed to avoid—pub­lic divis­ive­ness and social conflict based on reli­gious differ­ence—are on full display.

Diversity of thought exists within every reli­gion and includes those who believe their faith compels them to support repro­duct­ive rights, gener­ally, and abor­tion, specific­ally. The late Dr. George Tiller, for example, who was murdered a little over a decade ago by an anti-choice zealot, was known to be a devout Lutheran who considered his abor­tion prac­tice a spir­itual call­ing. Another provider, Dr. Ben Brown, recently tweeted about how he believes his “work is an expres­sion of [his] Quaker values.” Faith lead­ers like Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign have long suppor­ted repro­duct­ive justice as part of their reli­gious missions, and many more have voiced their support for access to abor­tion in the wake of S.B. 8’s passage.

Lawmakers and polit­ical lead­ers who tout reli­gion-based rationales for abor­tion restric­tions not only disreg­ard these differ­ing power­ful convic­tions but aim to enshrine one narrow theo­lo­gical inter­pret­a­tion into law. Given that pre-viab­il­ity abor­tion bans like the ones at issue in Texas and Missis­sippi fail to serve a clear secu­lar purpose—they have no effect on the over­all rate at which women seek abor­tions, are not tied to a medical determ­in­a­tion that the fetus could survive inde­pend­ently, and in fact increase rates of mater­nal death and mortal­ity—it is doubly danger­ous for reli­gion to be used as a proxy for policy or substi­tute for science.  

The First Amend­ment gives us the right to debate the mean­ing of life and when it begins. But it also says that such debates have no place in our legis­latures or courts of law if we are to be a soci­ety that fosters reli­gious free­dom for all.