By the Rev. Dr. Rollin Russell
We have heard all the familiar arguments against limiting and/or ending the right to a safe, medical abortion. But no one so far has said out loud what the real issue is, and any student of history or religion knows it. Debating that issue is appropriate, but I have heard no voice in that debate which bells the cat. It is time that voice is raised.
The question of when life begins is a theological question. It has never been defined legally as “at conception.” Jewish scholars from the first century on have debated the circumstances in which abortion is forbidden or permissible, including some cases where it is required. The principal consideration is that the life of the mother is more worthy of preservation than that of the potential life of her fetus. Hebrew scholars have held that the physical and mental state and future of the mother is a valid consideration. Hence, abortion should never be totally forbidden or made inaccessible.
Several Protestant denominations have clear theological and ethical pronouncements that hold that abortion should be legal in some cases, always very clearly and thoughtfully defined. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted in 1970 that “the artificial or induced termination of a pregnancy is a matter of careful ethical decision of the patient … and therefore should not be restricted by law. …” Later General Assembly actions have clarified the appropriate considerations of that decision, but have maintained that it should remain legal and not banned or made inaccessible.
The United Church of Christ, in its General Synod in 1971, adopted a pronouncement, “Freedom of Choice Concerning Abortion.” It called for the repeal of all legal prohibitions of physician-performed abortion in the early stages of fetal development. In subsequent years, the Synod has reaffirmed and elaborated on that statement. These two stated policies of the Presbyterian and United Churches pre-date and anticipate Roe v. Wade in 1973.
The United Methodist Church has stated, “Critical to preserving life is ready access to proper medical care. This includes access to medical care that may include abortion when that is the way to preserve the most life possible … In such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures.”
The Roman Catholic Church condemns and forbids abortion without exceptions. That has been part of its doctrine for centuries. It derives from Thomas Aquinas’s teachings on “natural law,” which holds that the ways in which God ordered creation should not be abrogated and to do so is sinful. Many fundamentalists and evangelicals who believe in the inerrancy of scripture agree, but their rationale is based on a very narrow and selective use of the Bible. (See my article “Selective Interpretation” in the November 2021 issue of Church & State.)
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and the four justices who endorsed his decision to overrule Roe v. Wade clearly have allowed their religious convictions to supersede their faithfulness to the law and to the 50 years of jurisprudence that have examined and upheld it. Repealing the right to abortion violates both clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The First Amendment’s religion clauses state, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” To favor the theological views of one or two religious groups over the views of others is clearly a violation of the first clause of the amendment. To do so also prohibits the free exercise of the sincerely held religious convictions of millions of Americans based on the stated policies of their churches.
It is time to say it out loud: The justices who support this view are flouting the First Amendment and placing certain religious views and religious traditions above others and above the clear intent of the Constitution.
The Rev. Dr. Rollin Russell is a retired pastor and teacher who lives in Asheville, N.C. He holds graduate degrees from Vanderbilt University and has pastored churches in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Texas.