May 17, 2019

Abortion is a Church-State Issue

angry woman

While scrolling through my Twitter timeline the other day, I came across a tweet from Americans United for Separation of Church and State that caught my attention. It contained a simple message about how abortion was a church-state issue. It hit me a few seconds after reading it that this was not something I'd previously realized even though it seemed so obvious. The debate around abortion and reproductive rights has centered on the fact that religious conservatives want to take rights away from women based on their religious beliefs. They elect religious conservatives who will use their power to strip women of their rights through some combination of banning abortion and reducing access. And what we end up with is a clear violation of the separation of church and state.

It matters little that there are some nonreligious people who oppose reproductive freedom; almost all of the most vocal opponents tell us that they are motivated to restrict rights by their religious beliefs. Perhaps we should listen to them and consider the possibility that they are aware of their own motives. Many people who were raised in conservative Catholic or fundamentalist Protestant families and left these traditions behind will be happy to explain that the opposition to abortion with which they grew up was rooted in religious beliefs. Maybe those of us who did not grow up in these environments can learn from those who did.

Admittedly, it is tempting to blame efforts to restrict women's rights on "the patriarchy." The optics of 20-30 White men passing legislation that takes rights away from women in their state (as we recently saw in Alabama) are hard to ignore. There's little doubt about that. Still, blaming this on "the patriarchy" requires us to overlook a number of facts (e.g., the U.S. is not a patriarchy, many women vote for religious conservatives precisely because they oppose legal abortion, and most of those who oppose abortion do so on religious grounds). As appealing as this narrative may be, it ignores far too much.

Abortion is a church-state issue. Whatever reasonable debate might have been possible disappears the moment religion enters. Thanks to religion, it becomes all about good and evil. People feel justified in stripping others of their freedom because their "god" wills it. Empathy for others pales in comparison to serving one's "god" and so there can be no exceptions even for things like rape and incest. After all, it is what "god" wants. Voters elect politicians who promise to do what their "god" wants. When in office, these politicians follow through on their promises by imposing their religion on the rest of us.

Some atheists get upset whenever they think national secular organizations are venturing too far into social justice territory. Some of them may regard reproductive rights as an example of this. I think this is a mistake. Abortion is not only a women's issue, a human rights issue, and a social justice issue; it is also a church-state issue. As such, I certainly expect the national secular groups to have something to say about it.

In closing, I'd like to make one final point. I've seen many women on social media who are upset about what Alabama, Georgia, and other states are doing. Not only do I understand why they are angry, but I also share their anger. What puzzles me is that some seem determined to broadcast the message that men should stay out of the debate. As a man who believes that women must retain the right to safe and legal abortion, I'm not sure how staying out of the debate helps with this. I don't want a say in whether a woman has an abortion because that is a decision needs to be between her, her doctor, and whoever else's involvement she might seek. But I'm not sure how to help preserve abortion rights if I'm not allowed to speak on the subject.