When Florida imposed a 15-week abortion ban in April, the office of the President of the State Senate released a statement titled: “Increased Protection for Unborn Children Enacted in Law.
Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson also said of the measure:
“After 15 weeks, it’s a child. And so the argument is, should you kill a baby after 15 weeks because it was (conceived) under certain circumstances?”
But this notion of the unborn child is not universally shared. It was pushed first by Roman Catholics and later by Evangelicals in their decades-long effort to end abortion rights. That Governor Ron DeSantis signed the ban at a central Florida Christian church makes it clear to whom it is directed.
With the expected overturning of Roe v. Wade by the United States Supreme Court, the Christian right’s view that abortion is murder and a sin will be enshrined in law in many red states. Those who do not share this belief will be forced to follow them.
Not all religions agree on the beginning of life, and their attitudes toward abortion are more nuanced than anti-abortion rights groups seem to acknowledge. Even among Christians there are differing views on the matter, as groups such as Catholics for choice will attest.
This was clarified in a amicus brief to supreme court signed by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and other groups stating: “Many religions teach that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is the moral prerogative of the woman and that abortion is morally permissible or even required in certain circumstances”.
A lawsuit filed against Florida’s abortion ban argues that it violates the religious freedom rights of members of the L’Dor Va-Dor Jewish congregation of Boynton Beach. The lawsuit was brought by Rabbi Barry Silver, a lawyer and former Democratic state representative, who calls himself “social activiston its website.
It is too early to say whether the challenge will hold up in court. But it highlights the hypocrisy of Florida Republicans, who so adamantly defend religious freedom while imposing their beliefs on Floridians. Conservatives have been careful not to mention religion when debating abortion, but the origins and arguments of their fight to suppress reproductive rights are clear.
Religious freedom for whom?
“Religious freedom is not just something that applies to evangelical Protestants,” said Samira K. Mehta, assistant professor and program director at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who specializes in American religions with a on Judaism and Protestantism.
“To say that life begins at conception is a theological statement that goes against Jewish teaching, Muslim teaching and the sincere beliefs of many Christians, and all of these people are equally entitled to religious freedom.
Mehta told the Herald’s editorial board that different religions differ on “the soul,” when a soul is believed to enter the body. For Muslims, this happens after 120 days, or about 18 weeks, and there are a range of positions on abortion. There is a general consensus that abortion is prohibited after 120 days, but allowed to protect a woman’s life. However, some Islamic scholars believe this should never happen. In Buddhism, life begins at conception, but there is no single point of view on abortion.
In Jewish law, there is some debate about when the soul occurs, but that’s not the most important point, Mehta said. Generally, a fetus is considered a potential life rather than a living being. Although there is ambiguity about when a fetus becomes a person, it is usually when the baby’s head emerges from the mother’s body.
“If you have to choose between maternal life and fetal life, you are obligated by Jewish law to choose maternal life, because the mother is the living person and the fetus is the potential life,” Mehta said.
The Florida ban makes exceptions for fatal fetal abnormalities or to save the mother’s life (but not for incest or rape), but requires at least two doctors to approve – a heavy hurdle, especially for women poor.
Traditional and liberal forms of Judaism differ in their views on abortion for other reasons. But many believe that Jewish law allows it to protect the “mental or physical well-being of the woman”, as the lawsuit states. There are also other considerations: whether genetic testing picks up diseases like Tay-Sachs – a rare neurological disorder typically found in people of Eastern European Jewish ancestry; a family does not have the resources to raise another child; or a woman has suffered serious health complications during a previous pregnancy.
These are not easy considerations for a wife, family or spiritual advisor. Terminating a pregnancy is an enigma that should not be taken lightly. Abortions should be rare and safe.
The anti-abortion movement has taken over religious and moral discourse on the issue. But what other religions are showing is that it’s not the black and white decision, good versus evil, as Florida lawmakers blithely do.
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This story was originally published June 19, 2022 4:30 p.m.