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A half-century after Roe, faith groups need to reexamine theology behind abortion politics

The last time we had religious innovation on the question of abortion came in the 1970s.

Anti-abortion activists gather Jan. 20, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington during the first March for Life since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the decision that created a legal right to an abortion in the United States. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(RNS) — As they have for almost all of the previous 49 years, pro-life advocates descended on the National Mall in Washington to commemorate the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on Friday (Jan. 20). What made this year’s March for Life different is that it is the first since former President Donald Trump’s appointees to the court ended constitutional protection of legal abortion and sent the issue back to the 50 states.

While the marchers celebrated a legal victory many thought impossible, the ground under the abortion debate is already shifting. That shift provides an urgent invitation for faith groups on both sides of the issue to reconsider religious arguments and political rationales that have become a drag on their integrity, stale and outdated.

Though states have a newfound freedom to liberalize, restrict and even criminalize abortion, the political realities remain fairly simple: Dramatic restrictions of abortion rights are broadly unpopular in most places, hurting Republicans, while Democrats, forced by pro-choice interest groups to defend abortion rights unconditionally, perennially alienate a larger majority of Americans who approve of some restrictions on the procedure.

In 2022, Democrats were spared the wipeout many pundits expected (including me), in part because, in the wake of Roe’s demise, the specter of banning abortion even in the case of rape, incest and the life of the mother pushed voters toward pro-choice Democrats. Republicans will be haunted with this specter until they can once again frame the issue as one of Democratic extremism, as they have for at least a generation.

But while the pro-life movement is a religious (and overwhelmingly Christian) one, for the past 50 years it has been mostly relegated to a Republican get-out-the-vote operation. And that was in its best years. More recently, despite conservative Christians’ crowing that their affiliation with Trump delivered Roe its final blow, in effect it turned their evangelical movement and the Republican Party itself into a chaotic, amoral personality cult.

As a longtime observer of American religious life, and a sometime player in the country’s political life, I remain hopeful that our faith traditions may yet have something to say about this thorniest of moral issues.

The last time we had religious innovation on the question of abortion came in the 1970s and 1980s, when abortion became a preeminent matter of conservative Christian concern. Our discourse on the issue urgently needs fresh theological-ethical thinking, not least from pro-life scholars and advocates. Is there a moral argument for abortion bans to include exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother? Or must they advocate for total criminalization without exception?

If artificial contraceptives, such as IUDs and the so-called morning-after pill, become so ubiquitous that fertility becomes a matter of “opting-in” rather than “opting-out,” should they be encouraged as morally preferable alternatives to untold thousands of abortions? In the endgame of Roe, we’ve seen pro-life advocates press for “heartbeat” bans, effectively a ban on all abortions. Is there another standard, such as detectable brain activity or the ability to feel pain?

As reproductive medicine has progressed, weeks and trimesters have become less salient as moral mileposts than developmental markers. While pro-life advocates and even many pro-life Christians agree that later-term abortions are unconscionable, are early abortions any different?

Without answers to these questions, the anti-abortion push will be subject to proliferating, heartbreaking stories about women and girls facing pregnancies that public opinion will judge to justify, even necessitate, abortion.

The fall of Roe has also raised another question of the culpability of women in seeking abortions — precisely the point on which the pro-life movement is at its intellectually feeblest. While insisting that abortion is tantamount to murder, the movement has long held that women are merely secondary victims of a predatory industry. Even the newly pro-life candidate Donald Trump, not known for his moral intuition, saw right through this when he asserted in 2016, “There has to be some form of punishment.”

If zealous Republican state legislators propose punishments for women, anti-abortion advocates, for consistency if nothing else, will have to explain why mothers who pay a doctor to kill their baby have done nothing wrong even as physicians are prosecuted for illegal abortions.

Finally, will religious conservatives at long last commit to policies that fight abortion on the demand side, drawing on communitarian commitments deriving from the Bible or Christian theology? Past entreaties found no audience among GOP voters or officeholders, and the few actual pro-family religious thinkers on the right have long been leaders without followers. But now that Republicans have garnered some support from working-class voters, conditions may be ripe for a reconsideration on this score.

On the pro-choice side, the faith contingent is smaller than ever, as liberal religious institutions decline faster than their conservative counterparts, but it may be louder than ever.

Once tempered by denominational statements like the United Methodists’ (“Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion”), progressive faith voices are now largely untethered from shibboleths like “safe, legal and rare.” Left-leaning groups that tended not to emphasize abortion even a decade ago have become full-throated advocates for abortion rights. 

As on the right, politics have led the religion. The Protestant left’s embrace of intersectionality has brought abortion rights into the constellation of social justice concerns. And while I have found pro-choice liberal Protestant faith leaders to be extremely insightful and sensitive in private conversations, the abortion-rights movement today makes it disqualifying to publicly air any moral qualms about abortion at all.

Still, I imagine a more meaningful role for progressive faith leaders than baptizing the movement’s #ShoutYourAbortion rhetoric. Democratic faith leaders could play an important role in appealing to the consciences of a shrinking but still significant religious middle that is skeptical of abortion — but also skeptical of Republicans.

Abortion is a life and death matter that rightly demands more from those in society with the platform, expertise and spiritual maturity to think about right and wrong, not just red and blue. Americans are divided and conflicted on the issue. We are confronted with political maneuvering and rhetoric constantly, and religious leaders’ contributions have stalled as they have become chaplains to power-hungry politicos. From our faith traditions, we need searching moral insight, not blanket partisan appeals.

(Jacob Lupfer is a writer and political strategist in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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