When reproductive freedom was recently struck down by the Supreme Court, one of the first things I discussed with my teenagers was our religious beliefs about abortion.
My husband and I are Muslims and have raised our two kids in our Islamic faith. While there is a diversity of Islamic opinions on the issue, there’s a general consensus that the soul enters a fetus at 120 days. There are several conditions prior to this point at which abortion is permitted -- and even after this point, abortion is permissible if the mother’s life is in danger.
The complete abortion ban in Missouri, based on a minority religious view within Christianity, is in direct conflict with our own beliefs.
We are hardly alone in this situation. Clergy from across faiths are mobilizing to fight for their congregants’ religious freedom.
“For years, evangelical Christian voices were dominant in Jefferson City as legislators reduced access and finally banned abortion in Missouri. They imposed their narrow theology on the state, threatening the religious freedoms of the rest of us,” said Stacey Newman, who served as a state representative for nine years. “Prior to the legalization of abortion in 1973, Missouri clergy of all faiths were part of an underground network to protect women, and many are vowing to do the same today.”
Newman recently helped bring together Missouri religious leaders who support reproductive rights in an informal network of communication and support.
Jeffrey Stiffman, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Shaare Emeth, was among that group. Prior to the legal protections offered by Roe v. Wade, there was a local clergy advisory council, he said. When women in Missouri needed an abortion, these Christian and Jewish faith leaders would help coordinate flights to New York or Colorado and arrange transportation to clinics.
In the Jewish faith, preserving the mother’s life is paramount.
“The imposition of a ban on abortion restricts not only women’s rights, but also the rights of all religious minorities,” Stiffman said.
Several faith leaders pointed out the hypocrisy of politicians claiming to be pro-life but refusing to expand health care access for mothers and children. Why aren’t the politicians who fought to ban abortion working just as hard to lower Missouri’s high infant and maternal mortality rates?
“For me, that is theologically an injustice,” said Sonya Vann, an associate minister at Christ the King United Church of Christ. The state’s abortion ban tells her “that if I am outside this very narrow interpretation of Christianity, then I have no rights within my own religious freedom to think about what life even is. I very much have a problem with that.”
Two-thirds of states that limit abortion access, or that soon will, also have Religious Freedom Restoration Act laws, which limit when the government can restrict someone’s religious liberty. One such state is Florida, and religious leaders there -- including two Christians, three Jews, one Unitarian Universalist and a Buddhist -- have sued the state over its abortion ban. According to the lawsuits filed in Miami-Dade County, the law violates clergy members’ religious freedom because it prohibits them from counseling congregants about abortion in ways that align with their faiths.
Rev. Deb Krause, president of Eden Seminary, a Presbyterian minister and professor of the New Testament, says her study of the Bible does not find it to restrict access to abortion.
“I’m a New Testament scholar; it matters to me tremendously what the Bible says,” she said. But when it comes to the legal right to abortion, “it doesn’t matter what the Bible says because we are not a theocracy.”
Rabbi Andrea Goldstein, of Shaare Emeth, said she doesn’t understand how the state can impose a singular religious value when there is no conclusive proof of when life begins.
Her congregation has a monthly collection for the Missouri Abortion Fund. She said there is a groundswell of people of faith who want to give of their time, in addition to donating money.
“Everyone is trying to figure out the best way to mobilize direct service,” she said. “They want to show people who are scared (that) there are others who care about them.”
Religious scholars have drawn connections between the current fight for women’s bodily autonomy and the role clergy once played in guiding enslaved people toward freedom. They point out that proposals to ban travel for abortion care harken to fugitive slave laws.
“Much like the Underground Railroad, religious denominations and leaders took actions against the law at the time,” Vann said.
Rev. Rebecca Turner, of the United Church of Christ in Maplewood, points out that there has always been religious support for a woman’s right to choose an abortion. It is the duty of the clergy to help those in distress.
“I’m not afraid of standing up against unjust laws,” Turner said. “I think a lot of clergy may well have to do that to challenge the state on its treatment of women.”