Editor’s Note: This week, “The Wall of Separation” blog is featuring the essays and videos submitted by the winners of Americans United’s 2023 AU Student Contest, which asked high school and college students to reflect on their vision for church-state separation. Submissions have been edited lightly and do not necessarily reflect the views of Americans United.
By Sam Canter of Lancaster, Ohio
It’s June 24th, 2022. My sister, 12 at the time, and I, 16, are standing in a Dairy Queen and waiting for our chance to order. It’s lunch and we’re starving, mostly for ice cream. It’s supposed to be a fun outing. We planned it last week.
But the news is on, and my sister isn’t stupid.
I’d been trying not to let it show. But my anger got the better of me, and she notices the second my jaw squares from looking at the screen. “What are they saying?” She asks, squinting up, too young to really understand.
It’s in that moment I make the split-second decision to tell her. I hadn’t wanted to before we left the house, but something about seeing it on the screen hardens my resolve. Maybe it’s the proof that this is real. Maybe it’s my little sister, 12, squinting up at a screen as a man who doesn’t know her tells her she doesn’t have a right to her own body.
“Don’t listen,” I say. I take her hand. “I’ll tell you when we sit.” And when we do, I make sure she’s facing away from the screen.
It’s June 24th, 2022. It’s been three months since my sister was kidnapped and sexually assaulted. I hold her hand in Dairy Queen and I ask her if she knows what it means for a state to be red or blue.
When Roe vs. Wade was overturned – the court case that upheld a person’s constitutional right to abortion – it was through a vote of 6 to 3. Four of those five are Catholic. And considering 60% of Catholics who attend mass believe abortion should be illegal, the results of this ruling don’t surprise me.
It’s undeniable that abortion as a “moral debate” is deeply intertwined with religion. Religion itself is a belief centering around what happens when we’re dead, and if how we act while living can impact what happens when that ends. Abortion does, explicitly, raise a question for those who choose to have faith: When does that life begin?
It’s an interesting question that ultimately doesn’t matter.
Because abortion is healthcare before it’s a moral quandary; the teenager who got raped by her dad should be able to get an abortion if she wants it, like the 30-year-old woman who will die if she goes into childbirth, and the man who didn’t realize going on testosterone wouldn’t be an effective form of birth control. The people who don’t have “valid” reasons for getting abortions should be especially able. When it comes down to it, it really is simple: people should have a right to their bodies, and the interesting question of possibility does not change that.
My vision for church-state separation is simple. As Supreme Court Justice Alito (one of the six who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade) has said, “Among other things, [faith] shapes how a person regards other people and treats other people,” and I agree. This is exactly why professionals should be brought in for conversations like this. Instead of people who are biased because of their religious beliefs, we should have doctors and healthcare providers deciding if abortion should be legal, with informed opinions from people who would actually need them.
Can you even imagine how it would be, if politicians weren’t allowed to lean on their faith to sway people in their favor? If the American people were knowledgeable, instead of going off of what they believed to be true based on what they’d been told by pastors and parents? It’s hard for me to conceptualize. We would be able to understand that sometimes, a moral feeling and a fact don’t agree. Sometimes, a moral feeling needs to change based on a fact, not the other way around.
Church-state separation is a step towards the killing of ignorance, willful or not.
The world would be safer.
And I would not have been sitting in a Dairy Queen, holding my sister’s hand. Telling her that, considering Ohio’s reputation, it would most likely only be a matter of time until abortion was illegal where we live. Our home was suddenly unstable. The thought hit me like a truck.
“Hey,” she says, reaching, grasping. I hadn’t realized I was going to cry until my voice broke. “It’s going to be okay. I’d … I know I can’t drive. But if you ever need out, when we’re older, I’d drive you. We’re okay.”
“It’s scary,” I tell her, hands shaking. “I’m sorry.”
We go over different forms of protection, and plan B, even though she’s 12 and won’t be needing them any time soon. We talk about safe states. Where we would go and what we would need to say. Who we would be able to tell before, and who we would only be able to tell after. Who we wouldn’t be able to tell at all.
My sister didn’t need an abortion three months ago. But she could have. And a month later, a ten-year-old rape victim from our state made news headlines because she needed to travel to get one. It could have been her or it could have been a cousin or it could have been nobody we knew, but it still would have been someone’s daughter, and someone’s friend, and some teacher’s favorite.
The TV over my sister’s head glows like a halo, and a Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland speaks: “We are brothers and sisters in our human family, made in the image and likeness of God. We are all called to live out our responsibility to protect and care for one another, whether born or unborn.”
My vision for church-state separation is simple: I want religion to be treated with respect. I want its influence to be acknowledged, for facts to take the spotlight over faith.
And I want to be protected, because I am alive and deserving.