Should religion influence abortion policy?

Your theological claim cannot be the law of the land. This is America and this is 2022.

People attend the Jewish Rally for Abortion Justice on the National Mall, May 17, 2022, in Washington. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

(RNS) — For the past three weeks, for the first time since the end of February, the biggest and boldest headlines in The New York Times have not been about Ukraine.

They were about America. The threat to Roe v. Wade, and the very real possibility that abortion will no longer be legal in huge swaths of this country, has shaken us.

But, for those of us who are people of faith, the issue runs deeper, and it is even more painful.

This is because this conflict forces us to ask the question: What role should religion have in national conversations on public policy, especially on matters as sensitive and as intimate as abortion?

First, let us remember that there is no such thing as “religion.” There are “religions,” and none of them are the established religion, or “church,” in America.

It is not only that there was no public church in America. There could not have been. The principles of the Enlightenment consigned religion in America to the private realm of the individual.

That being said, America is a deeply religious country. “Separation of church and state” is one thing. But, America has never agreed to the separation of religion and society. There is that thing called the American “civil religion.” Religious symbols, meanings and celebrations crowd into and compete for space in the public square. America is, as G.W. Chesterton said, a nation with the soul of a church.

So, what then? What should religion’s voice be in shaping American society?

I recall the words of the late chief rabbi of Great Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks: “Religion can make good people better, and bad people worse.” At its best, American religion made good people better, and it made good social movements even better.

Consider how many social movements in this country relied on religion as their moral engines. Two out of many examples: anti-slavery and civil rights (as in: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) both used biblical phrases and ideas.

Consider my own movement — Reform Judaism — our social-action department is the Religious Action Center, with the emphasis on “religious.” When my colleagues have marched for civil rights and women’s rights, they have done so carrying Torah scrolls and wearing prayer shawls.

My quibble with religious conservatives is not that they rely too much on biblical ideas.

It is that they rely too little. 

For example: The Bible is absolutely clear you have to leave the corners of your field for the poor and you have to take care of the widow, orphan and stranger in society.

Those teachings are all found in Leviticus 19. Surely, such attentive Bible readers would have stumbled over those verses, in that chapter that shows up between Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20, that list prohibited sexual relations. 

So is there a limit to the relationship between religious teachings and society?

Yes — and it is a necessary firewall.

We live in an open market of ideas. Religious ideas are part of the public discourse.

Like other ideas in the public square, we can hear those ideas. Those ideas might influence how we think about the great issues.

But, those ideas cannot determine policy. Public policy must be open to rational discourse, with provable data, and not merely rely on beliefs, however sacred their sources.

This is where conservative Christian views on abortion come in. Those views are part of a larger conversation about when the fetus is endowed with a soul (at the moment of conception? Later?) and other religious ideas and texts that are specific to the Christian tradition.

Recently, in The New York Times, a pro-life physician, who nevertheless had to perform a difficult abortion, wrote this statement of his faith:

My mother taught me that abortion was wrong because it was a desecration — it destroyed something precious. Sex and childbirth were good, sacred, and holy, reflecting God’s goodness to married couples …

I view my work as a physician as part of a battle against brokenness in the physical health of my patients, a battle whose tide was turned when Jesus Christ rose from the dead … I teach and work alongside local health professionals so that we can care holistically for people in need, following in the footsteps of Jesus, the healer.

I am moved by that witness.

But that witness is not mine.

Rather, my own faith lies along these lines — from a Reform responsum (Jewish legal opinion) on abortion:

The decision (to abort) must be made on a case-by-case basis, in the context of each particular set of circumstances. It cannot be fixed in advance by legal or religious authorities who do not know the woman in question and who are in no position to determine just what counts as her physical or emotional well-being.

For this reason, we ought to oppose legislation that would ban or restrict access to abortion. In almost every case it denies a woman the option to make a choice that our halakhic (Jewish legal) tradition would recognize as morally justifiable. This would be an unacceptable violation not only of her personal dignity but also of the freedom of religion that liberal and democratic societies guarantee to their citizens …

America does not allow you to turn your own religion’s theological ideas into public policy. I respect those whose religious faith would prevent them from having abortions and assisting in abortion.

But you cannot legislate those commitments, especially in matters over which there is substantial moral and scientific disagreement, and especially in areas of life that are so intimate. 

My own ideas about religion and policy are hardly limited to the Bible. Those ideas include the statements of rabbinic sages, medieval thinkers and modern authorities.

There is wisdom in this quote from the Talmud, in a section about the behavior of courts: “One does not issue a decree upon the community unless the majority of the community is able to withstand it” (Talmud, Horayot 3b).

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, the majority of the American community would not be able to withstand it. The majority of women would find themselves in states that would seriously curtail — let us be brutally honest — medical care for women, for that is precisely what is at stake here.

Moreover, access to such medical care would become even more sharply divided — not only along state lines, but socio-economic lines as well.

What contribution should religion be adding to the abortion controversy?

Above all else, perhaps, humility. We are talking about real women with real bodies, whose God-given dignity requires they have authority over those bodies.

Such humility requires that religious groups not press their theologically partisan agendas onto the American public. This way lies chaos, and worse — holy wars between religious groups. This way lies a return to the Middle Ages.

It is time for all religious people to call: Time out.

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