A Faithful Confusion: Abortion, Morality and Roe v. Wade

Amie Newman

We need our spiritual leaders to discuss the problems plaguing society: lack of access to health care, a severe economic crisis, poverty and more. A personal and private decision about a woman's body and the life inside her? Not so much.

Does it strike anyone else as discordant that in the middle of what many are calling  an economic crisis potentially on scale with The Great Depression, and as we pour $10 billion a month into an unjust and illegal war that is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of lives, we are still fighting for women’s most basic human rights – the right to make personal decisions about one’s own body?

Last week, the "On Faith" series in the Washington Post and Newsweek presented a question to a panel of religious leaders and others to foster discussion about John McCain’s and Sarah Palin’s campaign position opposing Roe v. Wade and the "morality" of abortion.

Specifically, the panelists were asked to respond to this question:

John McCain and Sarah Palin say it’s time to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Do you agree? What is the right moral choice?

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There is no other time that I can remember in my adult life when the hypocrisy of the "abortion debate" is so honestly revealed than right now. Our government tells young people they should not be educated about their own bodies, sexual health or ways to protect themselves from STIs or pregnancy. Our maternal mortality rates in this country keep us at 41st in the world – a travesty. We legislate consistent barriers to accessing contraception and family planning.  Our neediest children are being denied health care coverage. Yet we still need to throw our time and energy towards defending a woman’s right to a single private and personal medical procedure that has been codified in federal law since 1973.

Willis E. Elliott, a teacher, American Baptist minister and a consultant to Newsweek for thirty-eight years, writes in the "On Faith" series:

…..Finally, I am deeply concerned about single-issue, anti-abortion voters. I consider them immoral. Given the multitude of complex problems the United States is facing, this presidential election may prove to be the most consequential since the Great Depression. Why would anyone let the abortion issue determine one’s vote? Bad religion, that’s why. The worship of "human life." Fetolatry, the idolatry of sacralizing the conceptus/embryo/fetus. Religion can be such good news. I hate to conclude with this instance of religion as bad news. But I must.


Abortion, or more accurately, Roe v. Wade has become the point upon which the top spins for so many candidates’ campaigns, and a central issue for our presidential campaigns over the years. One case could simply overturn Roe v. Wade and potentially throw the legality of abortion to the states, or open the door to a federal ban on all abortions. The next president may have the opportunity to replace three justices which would easily throw the scales out of balance.

"On Faith", however, brings the issue specifically to religious leaders for a reason. 

As John Shelby Spong, a former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, writes in "On Faith", about a possible roll-back of Roe v. Wade: "The motivation for this is religious ideology."

And if one needs reminding that religious fundamentalists work hard to conflate their religious beliefs with the moral absolutism and ultimately constitional law, Chuck Colson, founder of a Christian outreach ministry to prisoners, lays it out:

"…So yes, McCain and
Palin are absolutely right. Roe v. Wade was bad law, made at a time
when we did not have the scientific information we have now that life
begins at conception [emphasis mine]
. It should be revisited for that one point alone." 

This is precisely the point –  Roe v. Wade, to fundamentalists, is simply about their own religious views taking precedence in American law and medical science. After all, different religions have different ways of viewing pregnancy, embryos, fetuses and "when life begins" and medical science is clear that it is next to impossible to determine when pregnancy begins given that it likely happens differently with each one, within a certain timeframe after fertilization, which is also undefined by medical fact. To allow for Roe v. Wade to be overturned based on specific religious doctrines is poor reasoning.
Does Life Begin at Conception?VIDEO: Does Life Begin at Conception?

As Willis Elliott writes:

"…..Overthrowing a law is a legal choice, not a moral choice. The question confuses morality and legality…"

Religious Right Does Roe

Linda Hirshman, in her article in The Washington Post about what a post-overturned Roe v . Wade world could look like (hint: Handsmaid Tale) writes that in 1972, pre-Roe v. Wade, there was public sympathy for women seeking abortions and more interestingly…"religions weren’t much engaged in politics."

Since the rise of the religious right, however, or more accurately since the religious right discovered that Roe v. Wade could be leveraged as a hot-button issue for the more fundamentalist, conservative voters, abortion has become about "the lives of the innocent – the unborn." And because of this we have a manufactured controversy that pits woman against her fetus, woman against her own body. In Roe v. Wade, religious conservatives decided they had the perfect tool and created a crisis.

Voters were now asked to judge women’s personal choices using a fundamentalist, Christian framework and actually had the opportunity to impose their own extremist religious values upon all the women of the country, via their support for candidates who opposed Roe v. Wade. In the process, we became a society split. We now were compelled to debate the "right-ness or wrong-ness" of abortion. It was no longer about bestowing women with the legal right to access a safe, legal abortion but about moral relativity – about whether women should have abortions at all.  

Susan Jacoby writes:

I am not going to argue about the morality or immorality of abortion:
there is absolutely no way to discuss the subject with anyone who
believes that abortion is murder (and there is no way for anyone who
believes that abortion is murder to discuss the subject with me). What
people really need to understand is what overturning Roe v. Wade, which
could happen as soon as a Republican administration gets to appoint one
more right-wing Supreme Court justice, will mean in a practical sense.
This would leave the entire matter of abortion up to individual states,
where (especially in the South and the Middle West) the religious right
has much more influence in state legislatures than it does in Congress.
The result will be a return to the pre-1973, pre-Roe reality: the only
way for a woman to obtain an abortion, for any reason, will be for her
to travel to a state that allows the procedure. This means that
abortions will, de facto, be available only to women with enough money
and sophistication to travel.


If Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion will not disappear. Legal abortion would remain out of reach for women without the means to travel and pay for underground abortions in the states that decide women’s bodies are up for legislating. But abortion would not go away. It would simply make it dangerous and illegal. The religious right likes to pretend that Roe v. Wade brought abortion to this country; as if pre-Roe v. Wade, abortion was not an option for women. This is of course absurd, and yet somehow we rarely discuss abortion pre-Roe except to say that many women were maimed and died from unsafe abortions. This is true, and unforgivable, but it’s only part of the story.

The truth is, that while Roe v. Wade did help to bring safety to a medical procedure that women accessed already, saving literally millions of lives, it never pretended to be nor could it ever be a comprehensive remedy for a range of reproductive and sexual health care challenges: unintended pregnancy, sexual health education, access to contraception, maternal mortality, health care for children born into poverty – to name a few. 

What Roe v. Wade did (and still does) is offered a prime opportunity for evangelical Christians and other fundamentalist religious leaders to convene around the perfect tool "to rebuild the foundation of the Republic as it was first founded – as a Christian Republic." They seem to forget that the first freedom is religious freedom. We’ve been fighting this religious war masked in many ways: as concern for the "unborn", concern for women’s well-being, and even as a battle over evil liberal impositions onto a powerless society. But it’s still an attempt to cover all Americans in the same fundamentalist Christian cloth. 

Abortion as Moral Dilemma Leaves Out Real Issues

Because the discussion about abortion, post Roe v. Wade, has become increasingly about its moral absolutism, rather than what it is sincerely about –  wanting to return the United States to a country ruled by Christian fundamentalism – we are left with an impossible argument that will never be resolved: is abortion "right" or "wrong"? And because we are consumed with this question, we overlook the true and real health needs of women.

In the "On Faith" discussion, Pamela Taylor, co-founder of Muslims for Progressive Values, gets to the very heart of how impossible it is for us to ever come to agreement societally about abortion when she talks about a woman becoming pregnant from her rapist:

Does the benefit of sparing a mother the harm of having to carry the product of a rape outweigh the harm of taking that child’s life? Some days I feel yes, some days I feel no, other days I feel that can only be decided by the woman herself.

And yet, as is the case with the global discussion we have had about legal abortion over the last thirty years, she goes on to say that she has a hard time justifying abortion access:

But can we morally justify absolving people for the consequences of
their actions when that absolution involves ending the life of another
person? My heart says no.

Ultimately, however, Taylor gets to a place where she explains how fruitless a moral discussion over abortion – or even Roe v. Wade – is when we are not dealing with the underlying issues. And though she is vehemently against abortion she does believe in governmental responsibility to women:

While I debate with myself about when abortion should and should not be
legal, it seems to me there are many concrete steps this country can
and should take to minimize the need for that debate… I believe we can go a long way to reducing abortions by changing the
way our society views sex, sex ed, and by reducing the costs of having
an unplanned child (whether you keep it or give it up for adoption.).


And this is where we should end up. If the discussion becomes about how we care for the public health of all Americans, the discussion becomes about health care for all, proper education, an understanding that unintended pregnancy and the choice to have or expand a family is a personal one, then we engage in a national conversation that focuses on public policy. Make no mistake – the debate over abortion is a controversy created by a religious right desperate for a political issue that would rally Americans around an agenda to keep the power structure on terra firma.

But they didn’t count on the fact that women will not be pitted against our own bodies or the life growing inside us. We understand that when life does grow inside our bodies, the connection is one only we can sustain or sever. We certainly can continue that public debate indefinitely – using Roe v. Wade and women’s own bodies as battlegrounds. In the meantime, our economy is crashing, our status as a noble leader around the world is plummeting, the health and well-being of our women and children are not being prioritized. Spiritual guidance? I think we need some right about now. 

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