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National News

Religious views on abortion more diverse than they may appear in U.S. political debate

Demonstrators at the “Jewish Rally for Abortion Justice” at Union Square near the U.S. Capitol on May 17, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Elisha Brown, News From The States
May 6, 2024

Lawmakers who oppose abortion often invoke their faith — many identify as Christian — while debating policy. 

The anti-abortion movement’s use of Christianity in arguments might create the impression that broad swaths of religious Americans don’t support abortion rights. But a recent report shows that Americans of various faiths and denominations believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. 

According to a Public Religion Research Institute survey of some 22,000 U.S. adults released last week, 93% of Unitarian Universalists, 81% of Jews, 79% of Buddhists and 60% of Muslims also hold that view. 

Researchers also found that most people who adhere to the two major branches of Christianity — Catholicism and Protestantism — also believe abortion should be mostly legal, save for three groups: white evangelical Protestants, Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

Historically, the Catholic Church has opposed abortion. But the poll found that 73% of Catholics of color — PRRI defines this group as Black, Asian, Native American and multiracial Americans — support the right to have an abortion, followed by 62% of white Catholics and 57% of Hispanic Catholics. 

The findings show that interfaith views on abortion may not be as simple as they appear during political debate, where the voices of white evangelical legislators and advocates can be the loudest. 

States Newsroom spoke with Abrahamic religious scholars — specifically, experts in Catholicism, Islam and Judaism — and reproductive rights advocates about varying perspectives on abortion and their history. 

Abortion views in America before Roe v. Wade

The Moral Majority — a voting bloc of white, conservative evangelicals who rose to prominence after the U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973 — is often associated with spearheading legislation to restrict abortion. 

Gillian Frank is a historian specializing in religion, gender and sexuality who teaches at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. Frank said evangelical views on abortion were actually more ambivalent before the early ’70s Roe decision established the federal right to terminate a pregnancy. (The Supreme Court upended that precedent about two years ago.) 

“What we have to understand is that evangelicals, alongside mainline Protestants and Jews of various denominations, supported what was called therapeutic abortion, which is to say abortion for certain exceptional causes,” Frank said, including saving the life or health of the mother, fetal abnormalities, rape, incest and the pregnancy of a minor. Religious bodies like the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals said abortion was OK in certain circumstances, he added. 

Evangelical Protestants before Roe did not endorse “elective abortions,” Frank said, or what they called “abortion on demand,” a phrase invoked by abortion-rights opponents today that he said entered the American lexicon around 1962. 

The 1973 ruling was seismic and led organizations opposing abortion, such as the National Right to Life Committee — formed by the Conference of Catholic Bishops — to sprout across the country, according to an article published four years later in Southern Exposure. Catholic leaders often lobbied other religious groups — evangelicals, Mormons, orthodox Jews — to join their movement and likened abortion to murder in their newspapers. 

After Roe, “abortion is increasingly associated with women’s liberation in popular rhetoric in popular culture, because of the activism of the women’s movement but also because of the ways in which the anti-abortion movement is associating abortion with familial decline,” Frank said. Those sentiments, he said, were spread by conservative figures like Phyllis Schlafly, a Catholic opposed to feminism and abortion, who campaigned against and managed to block the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. 

Polls suggest the views of Catholic clergy and laypeople diverge

Catholicism is generally synonymous with opposition to abortion. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the church has stood against abortion since the first century. The conference points to Jeremiah 1:5 in the Bible to back up arguments that pregnancy termination is “contrary to the moral law.” 

But nearly 6 in 10 American Catholics believe abortion should be mostly legal, according to a Pew Research Center report released last month. 

Catholics for Choice spokesperson Ashley Wilson said that there’s a disconnect between the church as an institution and its laity. “We recognize that part of the problem is that the Catholic clergy, and the people who write the official teaching of the church, are all or mostly white male — my boss likes to say ostensibly celibate men — who don’t have wives,” Wilson said. “They don’t have daughters. They have no inroads into the lives of laypeople.” 

Her group plans on going to Vatican City in Rome this fall to lift up stories of Catholics who’ve had abortions. The organization is also actively involved in efforts to codify abortion access — 14 states have near-total bans — through direct ballot measures in ColoradoFlorida and Missouri this year. 

Catholic dioceses and fraternities are often behind counter-efforts to proposed ballot questions. They poured millions into campaigns in Kansas and Kentucky in 2022 to push anti-abortion amendments, and also in Ohio last year to defeat a reproductive rights ballot measure, but they failed in each state.

Ensoulment and mercy in Islam

Tenets of Islam — the second largest faith in the world — often make references to how far along a person’s pregnancy is and whether there are complications. University of Colorado Law professor Rabea Benhalim, an expert of Islamic and Judaic law, said there’s a common belief that at 40 days’ gestation, the embryo is akin to a drop of fluid. After 120 days, the fetus gains a soul, she said. 

While the Quran doesn’t specifically speak to abortion, Benhalim said Chapter 23: 12-14 is considered a description of a fetus in a womb. The verses are deeply “important in the development of abortion jurisprudence within Islamic law, because there’s an understanding that life is something that is emerging over a period of stages.” 

In some restrictive interpretations of Islam, there’s a limit on abortion after 40 days, or seven weeks after implantation, Benhalim said. In other interpretations, because ensoulment doesn’t occur until 120 days of gestation, abortion is generally permitted in some Muslim communities for various reasons, she said. After ensoulment, abortion is allowed if the mother’s life is in danger, according to religious doctrine.   

Sahar Pirzada, the director of movement building at HEART, a reproductive justice organization focused on sexual health and education in Muslim American communities, confirmed that some Muslims believe in the 40-day mark, while others adhere to the 120-day mark when weighing abortion. 

“How can you make a black-and-white ruling on something that is going to be applied across the board when everyone’s situation is different?” she asked. “There’s a lot of compassion and mercy with how we’re supposed to approach matters of the womb.”

The issue is personal for Pirzada, who had an abortion in 2018 after her fetus received a fatal diagnosis of trisomy 18 when she was 12 weeks pregnant. “I wanted to terminate within the 120-day mark, which gave me a few more weeks,” she said. 

She consulted scholars and Islamic teachings before making the decision to end her pregnancy, she said, and mentioned the importance of rahma — mercy — in Islam. “I tried to embody that spirit of compassion for myself,” she said. 

Pirzada, who is now a mother of two, had the procedure at exactly 14 weeks on a day six years ago that was both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. She said she felt loved and surrounded by people of faith at the hospital, where some health care workers had crosses marked in ash on their foreheads. “I felt very appreciative that they were offering me care on a day that was spiritual for them,” she said. 

Seeing the stories of people with pregnancy complications in the period since the Supreme Court overturned the federal right to an abortion has left her grief stricken. For instance, Kate Cox, a Texas woman whose fetus had the same diagnosis as Pirzada’s, was denied an abortion by the state Supreme Court in December. Cox had to travel elsewhere for care, Texas Tribune reported.

Benhalim, the University of Colorado expert, said teachings in Islam and Judaism offer solace to followers who are considering abortion, as they can provide guidance during difficult decisions. 

No fetal personhood in Judaism 

In Jewish texts, the embryo is referred to as water before 40 days of gestation, according to the National Council of Jewish Women. Exodus: 21:22-23 in the Torah mentions a hypothetical situation where two men are fighting and injure a pregnant woman. If she has a miscarriage, the men are only fined. But if she is seriously injured and dies, “the penalty shall be a life for a life.” 

This part of the Torah is interpreted to mean that a fetus does not have personhood, and the men didn’t commit murder, according to the council. But this may not be a catchall belief — Benhalim noted that denominations of Judaism have different opinions on abortion. 

Today, Jewish Americans have been at the forefront of legal challenges to abortion bans based on religious freedom in FloridaIndiana and Kentucky. Many of the lawsuits have interfaith groups of plaintiffs and argue that restrictions on termination infringe on their religion. 

The legal challenge in Indiana has been the most successful. Hoosier Jews for Choice and five anonymous plaintiffs sued members of the state medical licensing board in summer 2022, when Indiana’s near-total abortion ban initially took effect. 

Plaintiffs argued that the ban violated the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the court later let the claim receive class-action status. Several Jewish Hoosiers said they believe life begins after a baby’s first breath, and that abortion is required to protect the mother’s health and life, according to court documents. 

Last month, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiffs have the right to sue the state but sent the request for a temporary halt on the ban back to a lower court. 

While the decision was unanimous, Judge Mark Bailey issued a separate concurring opinion explaining his reasoning and criticizing lawmakers — “an overwhelming majority of whom have not experienced childbirth” — who assert they are protectors of life from the point of conception. 

“In my view, this is an adoption of a religious viewpoint held by some, but certainly not all, Hoosiers,” he wrote. “The least that can be expected is that remaining Hoosiers of child bearing ability will be given the opportunity to act in accordance with their own consciences and religious creeds.” 

News From The States is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. News From The States maintains editorial independence.

This article is republished from News From The States under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.