When evangelical professor Bruce Waltke shared a standard biblical interpretation in favor of abortion in 1968, his words were hardly controversial.
“God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed,” he wrote in a 1968 Christianity Today article. “Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”
More than five decades later, a lot has changed. In that time, a concerted effort to place anti-abortion views at the core of the religious right has succeeded in rallying conservative Christians against reproductive rights.
But the success of the Christian anti-abortion movement has overshadowed another group of religious Americans: those who say that the right to abortion is part of their religion. This group includes Jews, Muslims, and even Christians who believe their faith allows—and sometimes even requires—abortion under certain circumstances. They say the right to abortion is a constitutional one, protected not only by the right to privacy, but by the freedom to exercise religion.
“There's a lot of folks who are pro-choice or support reproductive dignity and freedom because of their faith and not in spite of it,” said Rev. Katey Zeh, an ordained Baptist minister and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
As Roe v. Wade is threatened by increasingly restrictive state bills and a Supreme Court stacked against reproductive rights, pro-choice Jews, Muslims, and Christians may soon be forced to come to the legal defense of abortion in a way its never been argued before: as a religious right.
Abortion as a religious right in Judaism
The clearest argument for abortion as a religious liberty belongs to the Jewish faith. Eighty-three percent of Jewish Americans say abortion should be legal, which makes them the most pro-abortion group of all affiliations, including the non-religious.
“This isn't something that's a huge controversy in the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who has authored two books on sex and feminism within Judaism. “It is universally understood that there are times when abortion is actually required, according to Jewish law.” This is the case when a pregnant person’s life is in danger. In that circumstance, there is consensus among Jewish decisors (rabbis who decide on matters in Jewish law) that an abortion is not just allowed but is necessary.
“As long as the unborn remains a fetus, it does not have a status of personhood equal to its mother, and therefore may be sacrificed to save the life of the mother,” wrote scholar and researcher Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin. In Judaism, the fetus is regarded as a part of the mother, “like a hand or a foot,” Rabbi Ruttenberg said.
These positions are largely based on Oholot 7:6, which reads:
A woman who was having trouble giving birth, they cut up the fetus inside her and take it out limb by limb, because her life comes before its life.
In this circumstance, if the government were to deny an abortion to a Jewish person, many Jewish authorities argue that the government would be preventing them from exercising the duties of their faith. “If you make it impossible for them to have this procedure then you are saying that your law is more important than my life, your law is more important than my traditions and commandments to our people,” Rabbi Ruttenberg said.
While there is a near consensus on abortion in cases where a pregnancy endangers a person’s life, attitudes on abortion in other cases differ among Jewish authorities. Some believe abortion is permissible if having a child will cause a mother extreme suffering or distress, while others prefer to judge circumstances individually.
“There are a lot of even ultra-Orthodox decisors that say if this pregnancy is going to cause the woman pain, suffering of some kind—and there's understanding that sometimes suffering is material, sometimes suffering is mental—that is something that our tradition says is a reason to have an abortion,” Rabbi Ruttenberg said.
In the United States, Reform and Conservative Jewish groups have been strong supporters of the broad legalization of abortion since before Roe v. Wade. The founder of the Jane Collective, one of the first underground abortion access networks, was a Jewish woman named Heather Booth. While Orthodox organizations supporting the broad legalization of abortion are less common, they too have been involved in abortion politics. Notably, in 2016, the ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America sent a letter to the governor stating their opposition to an Ohio bill that proposed restricting abortion at six weeks. The bill, they said, would violate their religious freedom.
Abortion as a religious right in Islam
Though perhaps the strongest evidence for abortion as a religious right belongs to Judaism, it is not the only religion under which abortion is permitted.
Many Muslims, for example, believe in the permissability of abortion under specific circumstances—though opinions on abortion in Islam vary depending who you ask. “Various forms of Muslim religious authority don't always agree on the permissibility of abortion and under what circumstances it would be permissible,” said Zahra Ayubi, an assistant professor of gender and Islamic bioethics at Dartmouth College.
Still, there are some perspectives on abortion in Islam that are more mainstream than others, like the belief that abortion before the fifth month of pregnancy is permissable. This opinion is largely based on a Hadith that says the ensoulment of a fetus occurs 120 days after conception.
Similar to Judaism, many Muslims also believe in life-saving abortion. “In a scenario in which there is fatal harm to the mother, I would say a majority of Muslim authority figures would agree abortion would be permissible,” Ayubi said.
While there are certainly anti-abortion Muslims, for Muslims who are pro-choice “because of their faith and not in spite of it”—as Rev. Zeh put it—banning life-saving abortion or abortion before 17 weeks, or 120 days, could be considered infringing on their religious freedoms. And a reality in which that happens isn’t far-fetched: in 2019, six states passed six to eight week abortion bans that have been blocked from becoming law—so far.
Also last year, Alabama, which has one of the highest Muslim populations in the country, passed a temporarily blocked abortion ban that prohibits abortion at all stages of a pregnancy and even in the case of rape or incest, making only one exception for the endangerment of the mother’s life. In response, local and national Jewish groups and figures largely condemned the ban.
Like in Islam, many Buddhists and Hindus disagree on the permissability of abortion within their respective religions. Still, the majority of Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus in America support legal abortion.
Abortion as a religious right in Christianity
As Catholicism and evangelicalism dominate the conversation on abortion and religion within the U.S., pro-choice Christian voices, like that of Rev. Zeh, have been drowned out.
“As a follower of Christianity, as a minister of Christianity,” she said, “to me the core message is really about, first of all, love and compassion and care for the neighbor but also really eliminating systems of oppression no matter what kind they are.”
Though Christian scripture does not mention abortion specifically, popular attitudes towards abortion in Christianity have changed with the ages, as ordained minister Rebecca Todd Peters points out in her book Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice. “Abortion is not a major topic of concern in the church until the late twentieth century,” she writes.
It was then that a political—not theological—effort was made by Republicans, specifically Richard Nixon, to recruit Catholic Democratic voters by polarizing the issue of abortion. Evangelicals and Protestants later followed as a result of targeted political campaigns hoping to unite Christians under conservative cultural issues. In the late 1960s, very few evangelical Protestants mobilized alongside Catholics against abortion. Today, 77 percent of white, evangelical Protestants say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, even more than Catholics, who fall at 56 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
Rev. Zeh sees her work at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice as a continuation of her religious tradition. The organization follows in the footsteps of groups like the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a group of Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis who opened a clinic in 1970 in order to provide affordable and accessible abortion to women.
In other words, advocacy for abortion as a religious right is not new. The religious right, Zeh said, “doesn't speak for everybody. But it's almost served as an erasure of the prophetic work that people were doing, you know, before the 1980s. We're trying to disrupt the idea that religion equals anti-choice.”