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When does life begin? Religions don't agree

Caroline McDonald, left, a student at Georgetown University, Lauren Morrissey, with Catholics for Choice, and Pamela Huber, of Washington, join a abortion-rights rally outside the Supreme Court, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021.
Jacquelyn Martin
/
AP
Caroline McDonald, left, a student at Georgetown University, Lauren Morrissey, with Catholics for Choice, and Pamela Huber, of Washington, join a abortion-rights rally outside the Supreme Court, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021.

In a bill introduced this past week, a Louisiana lawmaker describes human life as "created in the image of God" and seeks to make abortion a homicide from the moment of fertilization – sparking concerns from reproductive rights advocates that such a law would also jeopardize access to contraception and fertility treatments.

Debates around abortion often center around the issue of when life begins, and adjacent religious and moral questions. It came up during oral arguments last year in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, a major abortion case currently before the Supreme Court.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Mississippi's solicitor general to explain his view that the state should be allowed to ban abortions, calling it a religious question that's been debated since the beginning of time.

"It's still debated in religions," she said. "So when you say this is the only right that takes away from the state the ability to protect a life, that's a religious view, isn't it?"

A religious question

Kaitlyn didn't want an abortion – she wanted a baby.

But last year, when she was about 16 weeks pregnant, doctors told her there was a fatal problem with the fetus. Her choices were to terminate, or wait for a stillbirth.

Through the process, Kaitlyn was guided – and comforted – by her faith.

"In Judaism, life and breath are essentially the same thing," she said. "So in Judaism, life begins when you take your first breath."

Kaitlyn lives in Kentucky, one of about two dozen states where most abortions could soon become illegal, if the Supreme Court issues a decision in line with a draft opinion leaked Monday that would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade precedent guaranteeing abortion rights.

She asked that we only use her first name because she's worried her job could be affected if it's widely known that she had an abortion. In her understanding of Judaism, she said, the decision was fundamentally hers.

"God has offered me a solution to my suffering, which is you have medical options available to you to end this pregnancy. I didn't need to suffer any more than I already was," Kaitlyn said.

Her husband was supportive of her decision, but he wrestled in his own way.

"My husband's faith is different than mine," she said. "He's not anti-choice at all, but this was difficult for him – one because of course he wanted this child as well, but also because his faith feels differently about it. It gave him a different set of struggles, a different set of questions with God."

A variety of views

Polls suggest that while a majority of Americans support abortion rights and oppose overturning Roe, views on abortion are often closely tied to religion.

Jewish, Buddhist, Unitarian and non-religious Americans express some of the strongest support for abortion rights in surveys. Within Christianity, there's a wide variety of views.

Ryan Anderson, president of the Ethics & Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank, opposes abortion. As a Catholic, Anderson believes that human life begins at conception.

"Every human being matters from the moment that they first come into existence," Anderson said. "No human being should be denied equal protection under the law; no human being should have their life destroyed."

But a majority of American Catholics, along with Black Protestants and white mainline Protestants, all say abortion should be allowed in most or all cases. That's according to a survey just out from the Pew Research Center.

White evangelical Christians express the strongest opposition to abortion, with more than 70% saying it should always or mostly be illegal.

Margaret Kamitsuka, an emeritus professor of religion at Oberlin College, argues there's significant ambiguity about abortion in the Christian tradition. She notes it's never mentioned in the Bible.

"Which is quite stunning," she said, "because pretty much every other moral issue is talked about – from divorce to gluttony and robbery and so on."

More than half of American Muslims support legal access to abortion, according to Pew.

Zahra Ayubi, an associate professor of religion at Dartmouth, said historically, defining the beginning of life has been less important for many Muslim thinkers than questions about how to preserve it.

"And the preservation of life is really often understood to be the mother's life, because that is the life that exists," she said.

Unanswered questions

Amicus briefs in the Dobbs case before the Supreme Court have come from a wide variety of faith groups — with widely varying positions. A brief from the Freedom from Religion Foundation and other groups argues that religion is "at the heart" of anti-abortion laws, and that "government has no business requiring citizens to comply with the religious beliefs of those who are in power."

For Kaitlyn in Kentucky, her Jewish faith was essential in helping her work through the difficult decision to end her pregnancy after she learned the baby she'd been expecting would never survive.

It was very clear to me in the role that faith played in my life and my decisions that as much as I didn't understand it, God didn't mean for me to have this baby," she said. "And it'll go on the long list of unanswered questions."

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