After leak, religious rift over legal abortion on display
America’s faithful are bracing — some with cautionary joy and others with looming dread — for the Supreme Court to potentially overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and end the nationwide right to legal abortion.
A reversal of the 49-year-old ruling has never felt more possible since a draft opinion suggesting justices may do so was leaked this week. While religious believers at the heart of the decades-old fight over abortion are shocked at the breach of high court protocol, they are still as deeply divided and their beliefs on the contentious issue as entrenched as ever.
National polls show that most Americans support abortion access. A Public Religion Research Institute survey from March found that a majority of religious groups believe it should be legal in most cases — with the exception of white evangelical Protestants, 69% of whom said the procedure should be outlawed in most or all cases.
In conservative Christian corners, the draft opinion has sparked hope. Faith groups that have historically taken a strong anti-abortion stance, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have urged followers to pray for Roe’s reversal.
The Rev. Manuel Rodriguez, pastor of the 17,000-strong Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic church in New York City’s Queens borough, said his mostly Latino congregation is heartened by the prospect of Roe’s demise at a time when courts in some Latin American countries such as Colombia and Argentina have moved to legalize abortion.
“You don’t fix a crime committing another crime,” Rodriguez said.
Bishop Garland R. Hunt Sr., senior pastor of The Father’s House, a nondenominational, predominantly African American church in Peachtree Corners, Georgia, agreed.
“This is the result of ongoing, necessary prayer since 1973,” Hunt said. “As a Christian, I believe that God is the one that gives life — not politicians or justices. I certainly want to see more babies protected in the womb.”
No faith is monolithic on the abortion issue. Yet many followers of faiths that don’t prohibit abortion are aghast that a view held by a minority of Americans could supersede their individual rights and religious beliefs.
In Judaism, for example, many authorities say abortion is permitted or even required in cases where the woman’s life is in danger.
“This ruling would be outlawing abortion in cases when our religion would permit us,” said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, scholar in residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, “and it is basing its concepts of when life begins on someone else’s philosophy or theology.”
In Islam, similarly, there is room for “all aspects of reproductive choice from family planning to abortion,” said Nadiah Mohajir, co-founder of Heart Women and Girls, a Chicago nonprofit that works with Muslim communities on reproductive rights and other gender issues.
“One particular political agenda is infringing on my right and my religious and personal freedom,” she said.
According to new data released Wednesday by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, 56% of U.S. Muslims say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, a figure that’s about on par with the beliefs of U.S. Catholics.
Donna Nicolino, a student at Fire Lotus Temple, a Zen Buddhist center in Brooklyn, said her faith calls on followers to show compassion to others. Restricting or banning abortion fails to consider why women have abortions and would hurt the poor and marginalized the most, she said.
“If we truly value life as a culture,” Nicolino said, “we would take steps like guaranteeing maternal health care, health care for children, decent housing for pregnant women.”
Sikhism prohibits sex-selective killings — female infanticide — but is more nuanced when it comes to abortion and favors compassion and personal choice, said Harinder Singh, senior fellow of research and policy at Sikhri, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that creates educational resources about the faith.
A 2019 survey he co-led with research associate Jasleen Kaur found that 65% of Sikhs said abortion should be up to the woman instead of the government or faith leaders, while 77% said Sikh institutions should support those who are considering abortions.
“The surveyed Sikh community is very clear that no religious or political authority should be deciding this issue,” Singh said.
Compassion is a virtue emphasized as well by some Christian leaders who are calling on their ardently anti-abortion colleagues to lower the temperature as they speak out on the issue.
The Rev. Kirk Winslow, pastor of Canvas Presbyterian Church in Irvine, California, said he views abortion through a human and spiritual lens instead of as a political issue. Communities should turn to solutions such as counseling centers, parenting courses, health care and education, he said, instead of getting “drawn into a culture war.”
He has counseled women struggling with whether to have an abortion, and stresses the importance of empathy.
“Amidst the pain, fear and confusion of an unexpected pregnancy, no one has ever said, ‘I’m excited to get an abortion,'” Winslow said. “And there are times when getting an abortion may be the best chance we have to bring God’s peace to the situation. And I know many would disagree with that position. I would only respond that most haven’t been in my office for these very real and very difficult conversations.”
Likewise, Caitlyn Stenerson, an Evangelical Covenant Church pastor and campus minister in Minnesota’s Twin Cities area, called on faith leaders to “tread carefully,” bearing in mind that women in their pews may have had abortions for a variety of reasons and may be grieving and wrestling with trauma.
“As a pastor my job isn’t to heap more shame on people but to bring them to Jesus,” Stenerson said. “We are called to speak truth, but with love.”
Ahead of a final court ruling expected to be handed down this summer, faith leaders on both sides are preparing for the possibility of abortion becoming illegal in many states.
The Rev. Sarah Halverson-Cano, senior pastor of Irvine United Congregational Church in Irvine, California, said her congregation is considering providing sanctuary and other support to women who may travel to the state to end their pregnancies. On Tuesday, the day after the draft opinion leaked, she led congregants and community members in a rally for abortion rights in nearby Santa Ana.
“Our faith calls us to be responsive to those in need,” Halverson-Cano said. “It’s time to stand with women and families and look into how to respond to this horrible injustice.”
Niklas Koehler, president of the Students for Life group at Franciscan University of Steubenville, a private Catholic college in eastern Ohio, said he and others regularly attend a special Mass on Saturday with prayers for an end to abortion. They then travel across the state line to nearby Pittsburgh to hold a prayer vigil and distribute leaflets outside an abortion clinic.
Actions like that will continue to be necessary even if the draft opinion becomes the law of the land, Koehler said, because abortion will likely remain legal in states such as Pennsylvania.
“We will still be going to pray outside the clinic,” he said.