It was one of the quieter and more reflective moments in an otherwise noisy and contentious vice-presidential debate back in early October. But the difference between Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and Indiana Governor Mike Pence could not have been clearer.
Asked about his struggle to reconcile his faith with his political responsibilities, Kaine spoke of his duty as a public servant to uphold the law even when it conflicts with his Catholic beliefs. On the other hand, Pence, who calls himself an “Evangelical Catholic,” gave no signs of any struggle whatsoever. “My faith informs my life,” he said.
Trouble is, the governor thinks his faith should inform everyone else’s lives as well. For even though he claims to be a defender of “religious freedom,” he has no problem imposing his own beliefs about abortion on the rest of us. He has said that Roe v. Wade should be “consigned to the ash heap of history where it belongs.” Earlier this year, he signed into law an anti-abortion bill so extreme that a federal judge had to block it. As he made clear in the VP debate, his opposition to abortion is clearly religious.
“The sanctity of life,” he said, “proceeds out of the belief that — that ancient principle that — where God says before you were formed in the womb, I knew you.”
Our GOP leaders here in Texas seem to be working from the same hypocritical playbook. Like Pence, they talk a lot about “religious liberty” — meaning, for all practical purposes, the right to discriminate against LGBT persons on religious grounds. Meanwhile, they’ve been pushing hard to make their own personal beliefs about abortion the law of the land.
Even as pro-choice advocates were celebrating the defeat of parts of Texas’ draconian anti-abortion law, House Bill 2, this past June, Governor Greg Abbott was already busy throwing new obstacles into the path of abortion providers and their patients. His administration reissued a mandatory pre-abortion brochure chock-full of inaccuracies and gave millions of taxpayer dollars for reproductive health care to an anti-abortion group. But the biggest obstacle may be a new policy requiring hospitals and abortion clinics to bury or cremate all fetal remains — no matter the period of gestation. As if that’s not bad enough, in October the governor promised even more anti-abortion legislation in the upcoming 2017 legislative session.
Underlying all these measures is the belief that an embryo or fetus, from the moment of conception, is a person with the same right to life as you and me.
This is an essentially religious belief. As ethicist Peter S. Wenz wrote back in 1992, religious beliefs are those that cannot be supported through secular arguments alone — that is, through the findings of science or through ordinary experience and common sense and the like. To ascribe personhood and rights to an embryo the size of a poppy seed (four weeks gestation), or to a peapod-sized fetus likely unable to feel pain (13 weeks) requires a leap of faith.
But don’t take my word for it. Look at what the 2016 Texas GOP Platform says: “The sanctity of innocent human life, created in the image of God, should be protected from fertilization to natural death.” That’s clearly a religious statement. It only makes sense from a biblical — that is, a Jewish or Christian — perspective. (Muslims and Buddhists, for example, don’t believe humans are made in the image of God, though they may have some religious justifications for restricting or banning abortion, or not.)
Yet none of these passages says that an embryo or fetus is a person with rights, or that abortion is wrong. In fact, the Bible says nothing about abortion. Nor does it clearly support the notion that human personhood begins at conception. In fact, Genesis 2:7 suggests that personhood begins at first breath (i.e., at birth). And Exodus 21:22-25, which considers the case of injury to a pregnant woman, treats the mother as a person, but — significantly — not the fetus.
In the absence of clear biblical guidance, there is vigorous disagreement among Christians, and to a lesser extent among Jews, about fetal personhood and the morality of abortion.
On one side, the Roman Catholic Church (of which Abbott is a member) calls for protecting the embryo or fetus “absolutely from the moment of conception.” The Southern Baptist Convention similarly believes in the “sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death” and attacks legalized abortion as “genocide.”
Other Christians, and most Jews, see things very differently. The interfaith group Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which advocates “ensuring all women have equal access to safe, legal and moral abortion care,” counts among its members the American Jewish Congress, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Church of Christ.
While both the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America hold that abortion should be used as a last resort, both also recognize that ending a pregnancy is a matter of individual conscience, and oppose any government policy that would outlaw abortion altogether or that would limit access for justifiable abortions. Even many Catholics disagree with the official teaching of their church on abortion. Catholics for Choice supports a woman’s right “to follow her conscience in matters of sexuality and reproductive health.” Reform Jews, Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger of Fort Worth’s Congregation Beth-El told me, believe that “a person has full legal rights at birth.” Furthermore, “there are times when abortion is fully justified, and thus it should be legally available,” Mecklenburger said. The Conservative Jewish Rabbinical Assembly (CJRA) takes much the same position.
As for the recently imposed Texas fetal remains regulation, Mecklenburger said he suspects that its proponents are “simply trying to drive up the cost of therapeutic abortion as a means of forcing their values on others.”
As Marquette University ethics professor Daniel C. Maguire notes in Sacred Choices, most schools of Islam permit abortion in the first four months of pregnancy, and some permit it afterward to protect the life of the pregnant person. As for Buddhism, the Dalai Lama himself told an interviewer in 1993 that“abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance.”
But religion is much more than just official teachings. It also comprises the beliefs and practices of religious folks as they live their actual lives — and many religious Americans get abortions, or support the right to do so.
According to a recent Pew Research poll, whereas most Texas Christians (57 percent) oppose abortion in all or most cases, nearly 40 percent disagree. Among mainline Protestant Texans, 59 percent believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with only a third opposing it. (Among religiously unaffiliated Texans, 66 percent favor legalized abortion.)
And according to recent studies, most women who have had abortions are themselves religious. A 2014 national study by the Guttmacher Institute found that 62 percent of abortion patients surveyed reported a religious affiliation; nearly a quarter of the women were Roman Catholics, and nearly 13 percent self-identified as Evangelical Protestant. Even the Christian research outfit LifeWay found in a 2015 survey that 70 percent of women who have had an abortion self-identify as Christian, and just over three-quarters said that their local church had no influence on their decision to have an abortion.
Under the First Amendment, Christians like Abbott have every right to believe what they want about fetal personhood and abortion. Their religious communities have every right to teach their own members that abortion is a sin, and to speak out against it in the public square. But when they attempt to impose their beliefs on everyone else through public policy such as HB 2 or the fetal remains regulation, they infringe on the religious liberty of many people of faith who believe differently — not to mention those who have no religious affiliation.
So how can public officials be guided by their beliefs while respecting those of others? State Senator Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, offers an eloquent answer. When I spoke with her earlier this year, Garcia told me that while her Roman Catholic faith shapes and focuses her politics, religious belief “can’t be something we impose on others.”
“While not everyone agrees when a fetus becomes a person,” Garcia explained, “we can all agree that a woman who is pregnant is a person. I believe that each woman is capable of making her own decision with her doctor’s advice, her family’s support and the faith in her heart.”
Come to think of it, isn’t that what religious liberty is all about?