If, as expected, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established abortion as a legal right, a burning question will remain: What happens to the people who believe their religious freedom compels abortion in some cases?
The question is not theoretical. As several commentators have noted recently, Jewish tradition asserts that if a woman’s life is threatened during pregnancy, her right to life supersedes that of a fetus.
Jews are not the only ones who feel this way; many scholars of Islam also point to the prioritization of the mother’s health and note that there are no clear prohibitions on abortion in Islamic law. Polls show a majority of Muslim support abortion access, as do many liberal Christians and members of non-creedal faiths such as Unitarian Universalism.
In the case of Unitarianism, the faith is guided by principles that address abortion and a host of other issues. Writing for “Religion Dispatches,” the Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, noted that members of that denomination are compelled to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all people – and this informs members’ stances on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights.
Speaking of the spate of anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ laws in the states, Frederick-Gray writes, “These destructive laws challenge religious freedom. They translate the conservative religious beliefs of one group into law, imposing them on everyone else. And they set dangerous precedents that dehumanize and limit the rights of already-vulnerable populations.”
Frederick-Gray notes that Texas’ anti-transgender law requires certain classes of people to report the parents of trans kids if they suspect those children are receiving some forms of trans-affirming medical care. Unitarians could be implicated by these laws, she writes, observing, “These state-level policies have disturbing national implications. These laws and directives fundamentally violate the religious freedom of our congregations to provide spiritual care to all members.”
In Florida, a synagogue in Boynton Beach is testing this argument in court. Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor has filed a lawsuit in state court arguing that a new Florida law that bans abortions after 15 weeks violates religious freedom. The lawsuit asserts, “This failure to maintain the separation of church and state, like so many other laws in other lands throughout history, threatens the Jewish family, and thus also threatens the Jewish people by imposing the laws of other religions upon Jews.”
Barry Silver, the rabbi of the congregation, told a Tampa TV station that the new law “would prevent a Jewish woman from being able to practice her religion because it would require her to sacrifice herself for the fetus.”
The U.S. Supreme Court should not believe that it can hand the abortion issue to the states, where it will be neatly resolved. In fact, if the high court continues to grant exemptions to secular laws on the grounds of religious freedom, Christians and non-Christians will go to court to test those boundaries.
Things are about to get very interesting.