Friday was a day of ecstasy or agony for the many Americans for whom abortion is an important issue. The Supreme Court handed down a decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, the foundational case on which a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy was established. For some people of faith, it was the triumphant end to a long, hard fight against what they considered a key human rights violation upon the most vulnerable. But not for all of them. Plenty of those who practice a religion mourned the rollback of what they consider a vital legal protection for women, especially the most vulnerable.
According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 43% of Americans who “identify strongly” with their religious identity do not believe Roe v. Wade needed to be overturned. There’s a wide variability within the ranks, however. A majority (56%) of U.S. Catholics believe abortion should be legal, but only 30% of Catholics who attend mass weekly. Similarly, 60% of mainline protestants favor abortion being legal, but only 30% of white evangelical protestants. A slight majority of Muslims and a large majority of Jews also believe abortion should be legal in most cases.
The bulk of the work overturning Roe has been undertaken by Christian organizations, but not all Christian organizations are opposed to abortion. Both sides of the debate rapidly released statements after the decision. CatholicVote President Brian Burch set the tone for many of those in the anti-abortion camp: “Catholics and pro-life advocates across the country celebrate today’s landmark Supreme Court decision as the ‘dawning of a new day in America’—a long-awaited first step toward the full protection of American women and children,” he wrote. “A dark chapter in our nation’s history has finally been closed.” Burch pointed to technological advances that he said have shown that the “humanity of children in the womb has become plain and undeniable.”
But Jamie L. Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, took aim at the church for its stance. “The unconscionable Supreme Court decision to end the constitutional right to abortion is the culmination of a decades-long religious crusade—spearheaded by the U.S. Catholic bishops—to take away a woman’s most fundamental freedoms, namely her ability to control her own fertility and determine her own destiny,” said Manson in a statement. Many progressive Christians believe abortion has become a recruiting tool to win over churchgoers to the Republican party, and Manson alluded to this infiltration of politics into matters of faith, saying the “ruling gives right-wing leaders unfettered license to codify fringe religious beliefs into civil law.” President Joe Biden, a Catholic, bemoaned the overturning of Roe, “a decision with broad national consensus that most Americans of [most] faiths and backgrounds found acceptable and that had been the law of the land for most of the lifetime of Americans today.”
While the different attitudes among people of the same faith towards abortion are partly aligned with their politics, and partly with how serious a role their faith plays in their life, they also reflect a genuine theological disagreement among scholars as to what their sacred texts say—or can be interpreted to be saying—about when human life begins. Those who are anti-abortion tend to point to Psalm 139:13, which talks about God forming a person when they are being “knit together in the womb.” Those who support abortion rights point to Exodus 21:22, in which the law allows a person who causes a woman to have a miscarriage to be merely fined rather than face the more serious consequences for murder. Muslim scholars have similar arguments about the Quranic view of when life begins.
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These divisions are evident in other religious traditions as well. A Palm Beach synagogue filed a lawsuit against the state of Florida in June claiming that the restrictive abortion regulations set to go into effect in July violate the State Constitution’s right to freedom of religion. The suit claims that in Jewish law, “abortion is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman.” Not every synagogue is of the same mind, however. While the National Council of Jewish Women held a virtual vigil on the day of the ruling, to “hold space for pain and consider the road ahead,” more conservative communities were jubilant at the Supreme Court’s move. “Agudath Israel has long been on record as opposing Roe v. Wade’s legalization of abortion on demand,” said the umbrella organization for orthodox Jewish groups. “Informed by the teaching of Jewish law that fetal life is entitled to significant protection, with termination of pregnancy authorized only under certain extraordinary circumstances, we are deeply troubled by the staggering number of pregnancies in the United States that end in abortion.”
Many of those who had been campaigning on this issue on either side used the Supreme Court’s decision as a chance to rally their supporters. “The issue of abortion has now been turned over to the states, many of which have either implemented or are considering some of the most abhorrently permissive pro-abortion proposals ever,” said Brent Leatherwood, the acting president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), which filed an amicus brief in the Dobbs case. “A consistent, convictional pro-life witness is needed now more than ever in state legislatures and local communities. So let us rejoice that we live in a nation where past injustices can still be corrected, as we also roll our sleeves up to save preborn lives, serve vulnerable mothers, and support families in our communities.”
For Rev. Jennifer Butler, CEO of Faith in Public Life, the ruling was a warning that social and racial inequities were about to be worsened. “Whatever our opinions on abortion, surely we can agree that jailing a woman or a health care provider for exercising their moral judgment in the moment is wrong. These punitive measures will be aimed disproportionately at Black, Brown, Native and Asian women, LGBTQ people, immigrants and low-income people—compounding the injustice,” she said. “In the aftermath of today’s unjust ruling, we must come together and bear one another’s burdens. We must do everything in our power to ensure that pregnant people who face immediate risk to their health and freedom are respected and protected.”
Others took a more fire and brimstone view about the effect of the ruling. “An ominous cloud still hangs threateningly over our nation,” wrote Phil Ginn, the President of the arch-conservative Southern Evangelical Seminary. “Not only did the Dobbs ruling fail to abate this storm cloud, but rather it perhaps has even given rise to the need for a warning of a tornado, the magnitude of which threatens to strike even at the very core of who we are as Americans.” Ginn went on to warn that “the reality of the present may be even more scary than the world of Roe” that “violence will spread like wildfire” and that “if you dare to speak up for the unborn, you will not be safe even in your home.”
But even among the more evangelical branches, Ginn’s views were an outlier. “Laws are critical, but they cannot change the fact that tomorrow there will still be many women who will face an unplanned pregnancy—afraid, unprepared and unsure of what to do and where to turn,” said one of the the ERLC’s chief campaigners for the anti-abortion cause, Elizabeth Graham. “The Church has a significant opportunity to serve and support these women in crisis and their preborn children in their time of need.”