The anti-abortion rights movement is largely faith based. Catholics and evangelical Christians argue that life begins at conception, and that fetuses have souls. On those grounds, they want to prevent anyone from obtaining abortion services.
They’ve had a good deal of success with that recently. A leaked Supreme Court draft opinion suggests the high court is set to overturn Roe v. Wade, effectively gutting the constitutional right to abortion. In anticipation, many conservative states have passed sweeping anti-abortion legislation.
Using the state to impose the Christian theological interpretation violates the convictions and freedom of dissenters.
But not everyone is Christian. And imposing Christian morality and Christian dogma on non-Christians is a good working definition of religious tyranny — which the First Amendment of the Constitution explicitly rejects.
That principle of religious freedom is the basis of a lawsuit brought by Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor, a synagogue in Boynton Beach, Florida, against a sweeping state abortion ban set to take effect on July 1. Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor is challenging a single law on behalf of a single religion. But the case is also a broader challenge to the anti-abortion rights movement, which conflates a right-wing Christian demand for forced birth with universal morality, and insists on subjugating the country to a sectarian code.
The new Florida law bans most abortions after 15 weeks. There are no exceptions for cases of incest, rape or human trafficking. It does allow an abortion to save a pregnant person’s life or to prevent serious physical injury. But these exceptions aren’t enough to keep the law from violating the free exercise of the Jewish faith. The congregation’s lawsuit states that the Florida law violates Jewish religious beliefs holding that abortion “is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman,” among other reasons.
The Florida law is uninterested in the mental health of the pregnant individual and narrowly restricts its concern for physical harm. As a result, the lawsuit says, “the act prohibits Jewish women from practicing their faith free of government intrusion.” It also “threatens the Jewish people by imposing the laws of other religions upon Jews.”
Jewish thinking around abortion is complicated and can vary among individual teachers and congregations (much as with Christian teachings around abortion). The point isn’t that the Florida law violates the Jewish teaching on abortion. Rather, the point is that abortion is an issue on which there is and has been strong theological disagreement and discussion between and among different faiths. Using the state to impose the Christian theological interpretation violates the convictions and freedom of dissenters.
And that imposition isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, like most anti-abortion rights politicians, claims his views are motivated by a love of life. “Life is a sacred gift worthy of our protection,” he said, adding that the law “represents the most significant protections for life in the state’s modern history.”
DeSantis appears very casual about protecting some lives, though. On Thursday, he rejected the idea of dedicating state resources to vaccinate infants and toddlers against Covid-19, even though scientists say they expect that vaccines will reduce hospitalizations and deaths in younger children. Similarly, in 2021, DeSantis refused to enroll the state in a federal program to bring $820 million in food aid to Florida’s poorest children.
You could call this hypocrisy: Many anti-abortion rights Republicans care only about fetuses. As soon as they’re out of the womb and become children, the politicians seem happy enough to let them starve to death. But it’s only hypocrisy if you believe that these Republicans care about life in the first place. Their policies suggest that they are not concerned with saving lives but are instead focused on imposing their particular religious definition of life.
Fetuses provide an area of religious contestation. Reaching into someone’s body and declaring that a group of cells has life — that’s a way to impose a Christian vision of truth on everyone. Pro-abortion rights feminists have often pointed out that the Christian right is determined to control women. They also seem determined to control non-Christians. That includes people of the Jewish faith, atheists, Muslims, Unitarians and, for that matter, many Christians who do not hold the religious right’s views. The goal is to legislate one morality and one religious practice. You have to follow Christian doctrine, whatever you believe.
The conservative majority on the Supreme Court seems very sympathetic to recognizing Christian demands and letting them predominate in public life. The court is expected to rule in favor of a Christian football coach who encouraged prayer after games. As legal scholar Caroline Mala Corbin wrote for NBC News THINK, “In these justices’ eyes, the religious rights of Christians may still take precedence over all else.”
So there’s no guarantee that Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor’s lawsuit will succeed. Conservative Christians have great power in the U.S. in every institution, including the courts.
But that’s precisely why religious freedom is so important. Christians do not have the right to impose their doctrines on the consciences, and on the bodies, of everyone else. If DeSantis wants to put the fetus at the center of his faith, that’s his business. Other people, including many Jewish people, aren’t willing to sacrifice the health and safety of women and pregnant people on that altar. Theocracy isn’t freedom. It isn’t life, either.