Faith leaders say religion doesn’t justify anti-abortion views

Pro-abortion rights activists drop a banner from a building during a protest against abortion outside of the Carol Whitehall Moses Center Planned Parenthood office in Washington, D.C. on January 19, 2023.

The dominant rhetoric from many on the religious right is that their beliefs require that abortion be outlawed in order to preserve the sanctity of life.

However, many faith leaders and people who work with faith leaders in various communities say that using religion in this way corrupts the conversation around reproductive rights and does profound harm to those seeking an abortion.

Opinions by those who identify with a specific religion vary greatly. 

Rev. Katey Zeh, ordained Baptist minister and the CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
Rev. Katey Zeh, ordained Baptist minister and the CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found that 56% of Catholics supported legal abortion in most cases, and Black Protestants supported it by 64%. However, only 20% of white Evangelicals supported it. 

The Rev. Katey Zeh is an ordained Baptist minister and the CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a 50-year-old national nonprofit whose members are clergy from various denominations in 38 states.

“What’s challenging about something like ‘abortion is murder’ is it’s meant to be incendiary. It’s meant to be a way to end dialogue and conversation,” Zeh told the Wisconsin Independent.

“I think, especially for people who identify as Christian, it can be helpful for them to know that there really are no sacred texts that speak to this issue at all. I mean, abortion isn’t mentioned. I’m sure it was happening at the time, but there’s nothing textual to support the statement that abortion is murder. That is a political statement meant to get people to vote on a single issue,” Zeh said.

Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, chair of the Wisconsin Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, chair of the Wisconsin Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, chair of the Wisconsin Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, takes Zeh’s theological views even further. She tells the Wisconsin Independent that one Bible verse that is often used with regard to abortion is Exodus 21

As Margulis recounted it, the verse “says if two men are fighting and a pregnant woman gets in between them is injured to the extent that she miscarries, the person who caused the miscarriage must pay a monetary fine to her husband. That is the closest we can get; it has nothing to do with abortion.”

“The reason that this text is the one that’s pointed to is because the one and only thing that it shows is that if the fetus had been considered a fully formed human being, on the same level as you or I, the punishment in the Torah for causing the death of a human being is capital punishment,” Margulis said. “But that’s not the penalty here. The penalty is a monetary fine, which is the penalty that’s imposed for destroying property. So the fetus in Jewish law, according to the Torah, according to this verse, the fetus is not yet a human being. It is property.”

Margulis added that in Judaism, based on oral teachings and interpretations, life, and personhood begin at birth when an infant emerges from the birth canal and takes its first breath.

A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found that 83% of those who identify as Jewish support abortion in all and/or most cases. According to a statement from the National Council of Jewish Women, “abortion is not only permitted but is required” by Jewish law if the life of the pregnant person is in danger

Rev. Denise M. Cawley, a Unitarian Universalist minister.
Rev. Denise M. Cawley, a Unitarian Universalist minister.

The Rev. Denise M. Cawley is a Unitarian Universalist minister. Cawley told the Wisconsin Independent that during her work as a chaplain at a clinic in Wisconsin where abortion care is offered, she rarely heard patients talk about their fear of going to hell or say abortion is murder.

“​​I just was gobsmacked that that is not what it’s about. It’s usually people who are having massive anxiety attacks about what they would like to be doing and what they feel they have to be doing,” Cawley said. “I sat with people who were having anxiety attacks caused by harassment from the protesters outside who knew nothing of their story.”

Zeh said her work largely focuses on helping people expand their understanding of the issue of abortion and how it relates to religious teachings.

“What people need at the moment of a reproductive decision is not judgment from other people, but support and companionship and community. And I feel like for Christians, that really is the call that I see over and over again in our sacred texts, is loving our neighbors and showing up for them,” Zeh said.

For many, faith leaders are often those called upon in times of crisis and joy. The challenge is how they can successfully guide a community when religion is often used as a way to divide and politicize reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. 

Cawley said that the role of faith leaders today is to change the discussion and stop allowing Christian nationalism to own a conversation.   “I think it is up to people who are people of faith to say, We have had enough. We believe in love,” she said.“We believe God believes in love, or spirit believes in love. I’m here to help support people make decisions based on their own beliefs. I am here to comfort people and give them love to make the best decisions for them at this time in their life.”