A Religious Right To Abortion?

Dec 30th, 2023 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

The ethical case against abortion rests on the proposition that life begins at conception—and that killing a baby in the womb is ethically wrong.  The life of the baby in the womb is as valuable in the eyes of God as that of the mother.  However, since the 1970s, abortion has been defended on the grounds of privacy and bodily autonomy: “my body, my choice.” The legal and philosophical debates that culminated in Roe v. Wade (1973) considered abortion in terms of competing rights: the woman’s right to control her body against the baby’s right not to be killed. Roe’s solution was to stipulate a deadline, namely the end of the second trimester, after which the baby’s right not to be killed could be legally recognized by state legislatures and supersede the woman’s right to abort. That there was life was never the question; always, the question was whether and when the unborn child became a distinct bearer of rights.

In light of the Dobbs Supreme Court decision of 2022 overturning Roe v. Wade, Tish Harrison Warren gives focus to the matter of “bodily autonomy,” a chief argument against abortion restrictions. Referring to abortion restrictions as “forced birth” is common among abortion rights advocates. Julie Rikelman, who argued in favor of abortion rights in the Dobbs oral arguments at the Supreme Court, stated that the right to an abortion is grounded in “liberty,” which includes the right “to physical autonomy, including the right to end a pre-viability pregnancy.” The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs rightly rejects the idea that rights to bodily autonomy are expansive and absolute, and therefore make abortion rights necessary.  “Yet the way we understand and define bodily autonomy has profound implications in our debates about abortion and in how we understand what justice for women looks like. The Dobbs Supreme Court decision recognized that there is no inherent right to abortion that flows from a commitment to liberty or autonomy, in part because abortion is fundamentally different, as both Roe and Casey acknowledged, because it destroys what those decisions called ‘fetal life’ and what the law now before us describes as an ‘unborn human being.’”

  • She adds that “the term ‘autonomy’ denies the deep interdependence and limitations of every human body. One definition of autonomy is ‘independence.’ But no human has complete bodily autonomy from birth to death. The natural state of human beings is to be deeply and irrevocably interdependent on one another. The only reason any of us is alive today is that someone cared for us as children in the womb and then as infants and toddlers. Almost all of us, through age or disability or both, will eventually depend on other human beings — other human bodies — to bathe, dress, feed and otherwise care for us.  A child in the womb is dependent on a mother for life in a way that does place a unique burden on a mother. But this burden does not end at birth. Parenthood — at any stage — is an arduous good. A 1-year-old baby is dependent on adults for nourishment, protection and care in ways that can be profoundly burdensome, yet we cannot claim ‘bodily autonomy’ as a reason to neglect the needs of a 1-year-old. Abortion seems to punish a fetus for its lack of bodily autonomy and deny the profound reliance that all of us who have bodies hold.”
  • “For both men and women, bodily autonomy can’t mean that we can do whatever we want, whenever we want, with our own bodies without natural consequences or obligations to others. If this is what we mean by ‘autonomy,’ then no one can champion bodily autonomy without ultimately advocating harm.  I recently came across a blog post by the literature scholar Alan Jacobs, describing Simone Weil’s insistence that ‘if we need a collective declaration of human rights, we also, and perhaps more desperately, need a declaration of human obligations.’ I find this beautiful. Speaking as a woman, with a woman’s body, I want safety and freedom for all women. I want women to be full participants and empowered leaders in public life. I believe we, as human beings and image bearers of God, have a right to bodily integrity, protection and liberty.”

The Dobbs decision moved the abortion issue back to the states, where each state decides what it will do about the right to an abortion.  The matter is not settled!  For example, in Indiana and Kentucky, several women are seeking religious exemptions from their states’ abortion bans in court.  The restrictions, they argue, make it impossible to get an abortion when their faith might mandate one.  The Economist reports that “The lawsuit in Indiana is joined by a Muslim and a woman who describes herself as a non-theistic believer in the sanctity of bodily autonomy.”

Where does the “religious right” to an abortion come from?  Before Roe, liberal Protestants and Jews had long agitated for reproductive choice as a matter of conscience.  “Some understood it as a moral obligation in certain cases given the responsibility of parenthood; they argued that the interests of the already-born superseded those of ‘potential life.’  In 1967 a group of ministers and rabbis founded a referral and counseling network called the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion.  Within 6 years it had assisted in nearly half a million abortions.

Very importantly, the plaintiffs in the Indiana and Kentucky cases cite the Religious and Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which “empowers religious objectors to seek exemption from a law if it ‘substantially burdens’ the exercise of their faith.  Two dozen states, including Indiana and Kentucky, as does the federal government, have RFRA on the books.  In addition, the Supreme Court has made it easier for religious objectors to prevail in recent years.  At this point, it is uncertain how the courts will respond to this use of RFRA to defend the right to an abortion.

Samira Kawash, professor emerita at Rutgers University, has helpfully summarized this religious right to an abortion.  I quote extensively from her summary:


  • “Is Abortion Sacred?” So asks a headline in the July 16, 2022 issue of the New Yorker, published in the weeks after the overturning of Roe v. Wade by Dobbs v. Jackson. Jia Tolentino recounts her conversion to the cause of radical abortion rights as a consequence of her own, deliberate and desired, pregnancy and motherhood. She hadn’t been “forced” to have a baby, hadn’t struggled with material want, had freely chosen her baby and the new life the baby brought. And all of this brought her to a quasi-religious realization: “I had been able to choose this permanent rearrangement of my existence. That volition felt sacred.”  In other words, it wasn’t the pregnancy or the baby that was sacred; it was her own capacity to decide the pregnancy’s outcome. She contrasts this sacred volition with being “forced by law” to give birth or “driven by need” to give a baby away. Her free choice is, for Tolentino, at the root of her relation to her child: “I felt able to love my baby fully and singularly because I had chosen to give my body and life over to her.” Choice, in Tolentino’s formulation, is the necessary condition for love and responsibility.


  • “By the 2010s, abortion advocates were resisting the moral censure implied by ‘Safe, Legal, and Rare’ . . . so a new, religiously framed advocacy has emerged. Katey Zeh, an ‘ordained Baptist minister’ and member of Planned Parenthood’s Clergy Advocacy Board, describes her ministry as ‘working to dismantle abortion stigma within myself, in the church, and in the world so that we can start showing up fully and lovingly for the people in our communities who have abortions.’ In her book A Complicated Choice: Making Space for Grief and Healing in the Pro-Choice Movement (2022), Zeh calls on ‘followers of Christ’ to ‘honor the full spectrum of abortion experiences and provide sacred spaces for anyone who needs supportive spiritual care along the way.’  Religious leaders like Zeh are taking a stand for abortion as a positive moral good. In early 2022, the Washington Post identified ‘an increasingly bold and more visible religious movement for reproductive choice, a hard shove back to the decades-old American narrative [whereby] a devout person sees abortion only as murder.’ The movement to provide a theological grounding and religious justification for abortion originated with Howard Moody, who from 1956 to 1992 presided over the radically progressive Judson Memorial Church . . . Ordained in the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ, Moody was the force behind the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a pre-Roe network of Protestant ministers and rabbis that connected women with abortion providers under the cloak of clergy confidentiality, circumventing the law when necessary. By the time Roe was decided in 1973, the group had grown to three thousand members across thirty-eight states and had referred 450,000 women for abortions. Moody took a leading role in other progressive causes, including homelessness, drug addiction, and AIDS. But he remained prominent in the religious pro-abortion movement, and his ‘theology of abortion’ provides the framework for the religious pro-abortion movement today.”



  • “Moody’s theology is grounded not in Christ’s call to repentance, but in the foundational value of personal liberation: ‘The right to choose is a God-given right with which persons are endowed. . . . Freedom of choice is what makes us human and responsible. And for women, the preeminent freedom is the choice to control her reproductive process.’ The free will that in orthodox theology is the condition of our assent to God is twisted, in Moody’s formulation, into freedom of choice. Beyond the absolute good of choice, Moody provides no moral criteria to guide a woman’s decision; emphatically, ‘the imaginary screams of a fetus’ have no moral significance. Moody accuses ‘religious anti-choice people’ of succumbing to the ‘heresy of the deification of the fetus,’ and regards preventing abortion as akin to ‘any pagan practice whereby a human was sacrificed for the sake of some idolized animal, stone, or tree.’  But as Moody decries the deification of the fetus, the god of Choice rises in its place.”
  • “A more rigorous version of the theology of choice is elaborated by Rebecca Todd Peters in her 2018 book Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive JusticePeters, it should be noted, is not a fringe radical; she is a professor of religious studies at Elon University and an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and she represents the Presbyterian Church at the World Council of Churches. Her work sits comfortably within what is rapidly becoming mainstream liberal Protestant thought.  Peters locates abortion within a broader context of ‘reproductive justice,’ a women’s health movement spanning feminist, anti-racist, anti-heteronormative, and anti-colonial ideologies and activism. The idea of reproductive justice owes more to Marxism than to Christianity; it is founded on a neo-Marxian worldview that pits ‘oppressors’ against the ‘oppressed,’ locates ‘oppression’ in systemic and structural relations, and advocates systemic transformation—that is, revolution. Peters theologizes this worldview, aligning the ‘sacred’ and the ‘moral’ with a vision of radical female power and autonomy, which will be realized when the yoke of patriarchal oppression is cast off.  For Peters, the traditional Christian view that the purpose of sexuality is procreation evinces a ‘patriarchal’ and ‘misogynistic’ tradition in Christian thinking, which persists for the sole purpose of controlling women’s bodies. Sexuality, in Peters’s view, has no necessary connection to ‘the desire or even the willingness to have a baby.’ Instead, she asserts that the God-given purpose of sex is primarily to ‘deepen and reinforce mutual bonds of caring and commitment.’ Because pregnancy is not the purpose of a sexual relationship, it can be dismissed as incidental. A woman has no absolute responsibility for the potential life she holds in pregnancy. Instead, the moral decision about what to do when confronted with a pregnancy requires ‘discerning who God is calling you to be’—mother or not? ‘You shouldn’t have a baby just because you are pregnant. You should have a baby because you want to be a mother, because you want to have a child, because you are ready to have a family.’ For a woman unwilling or unable to commit to the responsibilities of parenthood, abortion is a ‘responsible moral decision.’ This is a rather clever trick of moral inversion: By Peters’s logic, the refusal to take responsibility for the baby that may result from sexual activity is itself a responsible decision.  In Peters’s theology, moral responsibility is reduced to a contingency: I am responsible only for the things I want to be responsible for. Thus, there can be no moral obligation that is not freely chosen.”

How should we think about this radical embrace of the “theology of choice?”  “The emergence and increasing acceptance of this abortion theology signals a deeper shift in abortion politics and discourse, one that resonates with current debates about the nature and necessity of bodily limits when it comes to such contentious issues as choosing one’s sex or choosing one’s death . . .  ‘pro-choice’ is no longer a regrettable concession to the difficulties and practicalities of unwanted pregnancy. It is an assertion concerning the basic truth of who we are as created beings. The theologization of choice denies the reality of our bodies and our embeddedness in relations of vulnerability, generation, and dependence. And it perverts the relation between Creator and creation, elevating ‘I want’ and ‘I choose’ to the position of sovereign god. Moody and his inheritors call their theology ‘Christian,’ but they have turned Christianity on its head.  Choice has become a religious value, the bedrock of an emergent morality that bears no resemblance to [Scripture]. It is a stealthy adversary, donning the mantle of Christian love and charity to corrupt traditional faith from the inside. In this topsy-turvy faith, the immoral is called moral. The irresponsible is called responsible. The life-destroying is called life-protecting. Murder is called rescue. The pregnant mother is, in her omniscience and power, her own god. Her volition is sacred and absolute. And her holy abortion is saving the world.”

See Samira Kawash in First Things (December 2023); Tish Harrison Warren, “In overturning Roe, the Supreme Court rejects the myth of ‘bodily autonomy’ in the New York Times (26 June 2022); and The Economist (18 November 2023), p. 21-22.

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