"Religious fundamentalists," warned U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., last month, "are currently trying to manipulate state laws in order to impose their beliefs on an entire society."
She was talking about efforts to legally protect human beings in utero from acts of lethal violence. Opposition to abortion, Omar and many other abortion defenders say, is a religious belief—and we should not enshrine religious beliefs in our laws.
Some people who say they "personally oppose" abortion—including politicians like Joe Biden, John Kerry, Tim Kaine, and the late Mario Cuomo—express the same view. "I'm prepared to accept as a matter of faith ... that at the moment of conception there's human life and being," said Biden in a 2015 interview, "but I'm not prepared to impose doctrine that I'm prepared to accept on the rest of [the country]."
This is a pretty big misunderstanding. The pro-life position is about justice, not religious doctrine. It's based on (1) the biological reality that human embryos and fetuses are members of the species Homo sapiens (does Biden call other scientific facts "a matter of faith"?) and (2) the principle that all human beings have human rights and deserve protection under the law.
Opposition to killing unborn children is no more inherently "religious" than opposition to killing anyone else. Just as people of any or no religious faith can recognize the injustice of killing teenagers, so too can people of any or no faith recognize the injustice of abortion. Indeed, as the organization Secular Pro-life observes, polls indicate that about 13 million Americans with no religious affiliation think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
Of course, a number of religious traditions affirm that abortion is wrong, but they also affirm that theft and child abuse are wrong. That doesn't make laws against stealing and abuse illegitimate. Many pro-life people hold religious convictions, and those convictions may influence or motivate their position on abortion. But that fact should not disqualify it from public consideration. After all, we typically don’t think that way about other issues.
Religious faith inspired efforts to abolish slavery and secure civil rights. Religious faith moves many people to support public policies that alleviate poverty, protect the environment, and combat human trafficking. Even some abortion defenders—like U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice—invoke religious beliefs to advocate for their position on abortion.
So why are pro-lifers held to a different standard? Why are their ideas ruled out of bounds? Religious pro-lifers should be free to propose their views just like everyone else. They should be free to argue, for example, that all human beings matter because they are made "in the image of God" (Gen. 1:27) and that we ought to "speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves" (Proverbs 31:8) and "rescue those being led away to death" (Proverbs 24:11).
This does not, as some claim, violate the "separation of church and state." It is not an "establishment of religion," which is prohibited by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Instituting an official state denomination or mandating religious practice might be an establishment of religion. That's not what pro-lifers want.
Pro-lifers want to protect people from being unjustly killed. If our laws should do anything, they should do that.
The abortion debate—contrary to the claims of Omar, Biden, and many others—isn't a theological dispute. It's a debate about the scope of human rights. Calling the pro-life position a religious belief is a convenient way to dismiss the case for inclusion without actually considering it.
Pro-lifers are not trying to create a theocracy. We're only trying to create a society that respects and protects everyone.
This article appears in the June 2019 issue of NRL News.