No room for religious liberty in abortion debate? Since when are we a one-faith nation?

I lived in Ireland for a year in the 1970s, when both contraception and abortion were illegal. I still remember the news story about a young German couple whose birth control was confiscated as they entered the country for their honeymoon. Welcome to Ireland!

Contraception became legal in Ireland in 1979 and widely available in 1985. But the tide on abortion did not start to turn until the 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist carrying a doomed 17-week fetus.

In a BBC interview at the time, her husband said she was told she could not end the pregnancy because it was against the law in Catholic Ireland. She said she was Hindu, not Catholic, and asked “why impose the law on her,” said her husband, Praveen. The answer she received: “ ‘I'm sorry, unfortunately it's a Catholic country' and it's the law that they can't abort when the fetus is live." By the time the fetus’ heart stopped, it was too late for Savita. She died of septicemia.

There's no consensus on abortion

Make no mistake, the abortion debate is about religion. For some believers, it's simple: Abortion amounts to murder.

In reality, that word is fraught and harder to define than it seems. Our laws consider many circumstances: Was a killing premeditated, impulsive, accidental, committed in self-defense?

Capital punishment is legal killing. So is war, except when it's not – for instance if a party targets civilians or uses weapons of mass destruction. Some people oppose even “legal” war killings due to their moral or religious principles and may be granted conscientious objector status.

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Author Amy Bloom’s husband had Alzheimer’s disease and he did not want to deteriorate until it killed him. She researched assisted suicide for months – how to do it (Do-it-yourself suffocation? Pentobarbital?) and where to do it (Dignitas in Zurich was the only real option). In her book “In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss,” she describes supervising his application process, watching him drink the fatal potion and holding his hand as he embarked on his “long journey, miles and miles of Nought.”

Was Bloom an enabler, an accessory to a crime? Not in Zurich. Is assisted suicide considered murder? Not in the 11 U.S. jurisdictions that allow it. What about other types of euthanasia? When you have a vet put your terminally ill pet out of its misery, is that murder – or mercy?

No consensus among religions

Is abortion murder? It depends on when you think life begins. Is it at conception, at viability, at birth? Arthur Caplan, a New York University bioethicist, talks of symmetry: “We agree that people are dead and no longer exist when their brains have ceased to function. So, I think a key landmark is when a brain is able to totally function.”

He and other scientists say that happens at 24-25 weeks. That’s when a fetus develops the coordinated "brain activity required for consciousness,” Dr. Tomás Ryan, an associate professor at Dublin's Trinity College Institute of Neurosciences, wrote in 2018.

Abortion-rights supporters outside a Catholic church in downtown Manhattan on May 7, 2022, in New York City.
Abortion-rights supporters outside a Catholic church in downtown Manhattan on May 7, 2022, in New York City.

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There is no consensus among religions on these questions. In fact there is no consensus among Muslims, says Asifa Quraishi-Landes, a professor of U.S. constitutional law and modern Islamic constitutional theory at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Quranic verses can be interpreted in many ways and “Muslims simply select whichever sharia school of thought they want to follow,” she wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. “That means it is normal for some Muslims to oppose abortion while others insist on its legitimacy.”

The National Council of Jewish Women says a fetus is considered “a physical part of the pregnant individual’s body” until labor and childbirth. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, the council’s scholar in residence, posted a Twitter thread quoting from the Talmud and Orthodox authorities to show Judaism permits abortion for many reasons – among them preventing disgrace, preserving dignity, keeping “domestic peace” and sparing people emotional and physical pain. To save a pregnant person’s life, Ruttenberg wrote, “it’s required.”

Freedom to follow your faith

For nearly 50 years, Roe v. Wade created space for disagreement on abortion. Caroline Mala Corbin, a constitutional law professor at the University of Miami School of Law, put it to me this way: “Each person is able to live their religious truth when abortion is legal.”

You’d think that right would be guaranteed in America by the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, the people have religious liberty and the government can’t establish an official religion or favor one religion over another.

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But Corbin notes that in a 1980 case about abortion restrictions, the Supreme Court ruled that the restrictions did not favor a particular religious view – they just happened to coincide with it. On top of the court’s rulings last month that abortion cannot be “deemed fundamental” like other rights and that a football coach has the right to pray publicly on the field (an Establishment Clause “wrecking ball,” Corbin says), national prospects appear dim.

Some states have explicit constitutional or statutory rights to privacy, and they are the basis of many legal challenges. Religious freedom is also a right in some states and it is in play in at least two lawsuits, in Florida and Ohio.

An abortion law signed in a church

Ten days before Roe was overturned, a Florida synagogue filed suit on June 14 claiming that the state’s 15-week limit on abortion “prohibits Jewish women from practicing their faith free of government intrusion and this violates their privacy rights and religious freedom.” The rabbi noted with anxiety that Gov. Ron DeSantis had signed the law in an evangelical Christian church.

In Ohio, a coalition of Jewish groups said last week that it would join the ACLU in challenging the state’s six-week ban on freedom-of-religion grounds.

Jill Lawrence is a USA TODAY Opinion columnist.
Jill Lawrence is a USA TODAY Opinion columnist.

Ideally, Congress would pass a law setting a national minimum standard for abortion rights and access. For Ireland, it took tragedies, traumas and pressure from groups like the European Convention on Human Rights, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and the U.N. Human Rights Committee. In 2018, Irish voters overwhelmingly repealed a 1983 constitutional amendment that gave equal weight to “the right to life of the unborn” and “of the mother.” A new law establishing a legal right to abortion took effect in 2019.

Patients are increasingly at risk as doctors try to navigate new laws and stay out of jail. The plight of Ohio's 10-year-old rape victim has dramatically defined the impact of Roe v. Wade's demise. Maybe this child will be this country's Savita Halappanavar – shocking enough consciences to blast America out of the 18th century and back into the 21st.

More from Jill Lawrence:

►Interstate abortion travel bans? We're supposed to be a free country, not East Germany.

►Supreme Court month of horrors on guns, abortion and climate

Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Abortion bans and limits rooted in religion are dangerous for women