By Nancy Liebrecht
Liebrecht is a retired landscape architect and environmental scientist. She lives in Fries.
The debate about abortion, which has been simmering for decades, has recently figured prominently in the news with the passage of restrictive laws in several states governed by Republicans. In Southwestern Virginia, a largely Republican corner of the state, it has been a critical issue for evangelical voters even before the passage of these new laws. Two years ago, a man named Jimmy told me that he would “never vote for any candidate who was not pro-life” My hairdresser once asked me out-of-the blue if I were a “baby-killer.”
Back in the early seventies, relief not passionate partisanship was the general reaction to Roe v. Wade. People recognized that this was a decision whose time had come, and it was generally thought to be a conservative, not liberal, decision. There was broad recognition that there are some things in which government should not be involved; such as, whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. The public travails of women who took Thalidomide and who carried profoundly-deformed fetuses likely played a significant role in shaping the recognition that perhaps women and not the state should be making difficult decisions to abort pregnancies. It is most certainly a conservative point of view that government should not intrude into a person’s personal life.
Approximately ten years after Roe v. Wade, Republican politicians realized that evangelical voters could be a powerful political force, and their religious opposition to abortion became a critical component of Republican political strategy. That evangelical voters have deep convictions about how they view abortion is unquestioned and that they have an absolute right to these convictions is also unquestioned. What is dubious is the cynical harnessing of this issue for political purposes — particularly when it is debatable that the government should determine whether or not women are able to get abortions.
Views on abortion are largely, but not completely, rooted in religious belief. Biblical passages are often cited as justification that human life begins at conception, and certain churches, Evangelical, Catholic, and LDS, have been in the forefront of opposition to abortion rights. The Bible, however, is ambiguous about abortion. It contains no specific proscription against it, just verses that are interpreted to support anti-abortion beliefs. There are, however, also verses that support the position of abortion rights activists. It is basically a question of faith as to whether one believes that human life begins at conception or not, and polls have indicated over the decades, that the country is pretty evenly split on this question. A majority, however, believes that abortion should be allowed with some restrictions.
It is perilous to regulate actions based on religious belief, and it is particularly so when there is no public consensus about these beliefs. It undermines government and respect for law and fosters corruption when a minority, albeit a large minority, tries to impose its religious precepts via restrictive laws on a general population, the majority of whom do not accept these beliefs. It is perhaps for this reason that the founding fathers were adamant that Christian religion had no part in the creation of the United States and its government. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Ben Franklin all made explicit statements to this effect.
While freedom of religion is protected under the Constitution, the right to impose one’s religious beliefs on others is not, but if successful in making abortion illegal, anti-abortion advocates will likely find that result is not a reduced a number of abortions. The rates of abortion in countries where the practice is outlawed are comparable to the rates of abortion where it is legal. The number of abortions in Texas recently increased after the passage of restrictive laws there. When people do not believe that a law is appropriate, they will flout it.
Abortion opponents can still work to reduce abortions in this country without infringing on other people’s rights and beliefs. Programs that support women, such as good medical care, contraception counseling, paid family leave, affordable nursery care, and universal pre-kindergarten provide a level of security enabling women to both consciously decide to have children and also to maintain an unwanted pregnancy. When these programs are available, birthrates rise. Sweden has some of the most liberal abortion laws anywhere and also expansive programs supporting parenting. It also has the highest birthrate in Europe.
Presidential candidates who support these programs while not opposing abortion rights are actually the most pro-life candidates out there.