Can Secular Abortion Laws Be Motivated by Religious Views?

If you’ve had any interaction with a pro-choice advocate, especially in recent days, you’ve probably encountered some version of this statement: “You shouldn’t have the right to force your religious views on to abortion laws and my body? Keep your religion to yourself and out of our laws” Is that right? Should all laws passed in a democratic country be strictly secular and avoid all religious influence?

Here is a version of this argument from Kirsten Powers, the Democratic commentator who converted to Christianity attending Tim Keller’s church and later became Roman Catholic.

I chose Powers because, despite my disagreements with her, I think she at least tries to treat those on the opposing viewpoint with respect. There’s a reason she spent so long as a voice for the Democratic party at Fox News. But this tweet (and underlying argument) misses the mark.

Her two points in this tweet also happen to be two of the most popular arguments today against restricting abortion.

  • If you don’t want one, don’t get one.
  • You can’t force your religious beliefs on others.

Before I address the “no imposing religious views” argument, let me first quickly respond to her first point.

“If you don’t want one, don’t get one.”

First, “if you don’t want one, don’t get one,” doesn’t work for issues that impacts multiple persons, which is the primary question at the heart of the abortion debate. Obviously if you start with the conclusion (the unborn is not a person worthy of protection) you arrive at that same conclusion, but that’s the very question we disagree on.

She criticizes many who disagree with her for attempting to use her “don’t want one, don’t get one” logic on issues like slavery or murder. Her response is that those issues are clearly different (which again is the actual debate at hand), but her reasoning flattens out abortion to the equivalent of deciding to get a tattoo or not.

We do the issue of abortion and the people involved a significant, serious disservice when we attempt to reduce it all down to strictly a matter of personal choice. Click To Tweet

I don’t think she or the vast majority of pro-choice people believe this to be the case. Most view abortion as a complicated issue filled with lots of factors and nuance, which is why they undercut those arguments for nuance when they try to dismiss opposing arguments with flippant statements such as this. We do the issue and the people involved a significant, serious disservice when we attempt to reduce it all down to strictly a matter of personal choice.

So in the end, “if you don’t want one, don’t get one,” fails because it tries to treat an assumption at the very heart of the discussion (the unborn is not a person worthy of protection) as a fact. Even if you take the argument at face value, however, it over-simplifies the situation beyond what any pro-choice advocate would be comfortable accepting.

You can’t force your religious beliefs on others.

Secondly, she argues abortion opposition that originates from a religious perspective (specifically Christian) should not be “imposed” on those of differing beliefs in our shared society. In doing so, the pro-life advocate undermines “religious freedom.”

This is wrong on its surface since there are religious arguments against numerous issues that are agreed upon as bad and punishable by law (kidnapping, rape, abuse, etc.). If we take this strictly, we’d have to allow murder since the 10 Commandments prohibits it and the Bible gives theological justification to do so.

But in response to others, Powers clarified her stance by limiting it to issues that she says can’t be figured out apart from Christianity. So because societies around the world, be they secular, Buddhist, Muslim, etc., outlaw murder, we can take a similar stance here even if individuals making the arguments are motivated by religious beliefs.

If some people are able to reason their way to a pro-life position seemingly without using religion, or even a non-Christian faiths as their foundation, then the entire argument against Christians "forcing their views on others" fails. Click To Tweet

In response to individuals who responded to her tweet and noted they are atheist and pro-life, she acknowledged their existence but asserts they’re not the norm. Powers said the vast majority of people who oppose abortion do so because they have a religious perspective on human life in the womb, which means we can’t enforce that perspective on others.

But that wasn’t her initial argument or even her revised argument. An individual who is secular and pro-life “did not need” Christianity to arrive at the conclusion that abortion is wrong.1I use quotes around “did not need,” since the shared morals of many of the world’s religions and peoples is an argument for the existence of a law-giving God (see C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man or Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God). And if those arguments are true, we need God to make any moral argument, whether we realize it or not. But that’s a discussion for another day and would still undermine Powers argument since there would be no just laws anyone can arrive at without God. If some people are able to reason their way to a pro-life position seemingly without using religion, or even using a non-Christian faith as their foundation, then the entire argument fails. It doesn’t matter if 99% of the people who oppose abortion do so because of their Christian faith, if any non-Christian arrives at the same conclusion, her argument doesn’t hold.

In other tweets, Powers said we should not enshrine in laws positions that derive their “primary evidence” from a religious text. If you draw your abortion reasoning from the Bible and presumably the Koran or the sacred texts of Hindus or Buddhist, you cannot legislate your beliefs. Once again, she’s wrong and it doesn’t take much to show why.

We don’t need to look at the pro-life movement, but rather pro-choice individuals and organizations. Would her position not also restrict those who say their faith is the primary motivator and evidence for them to support abortion access?

If you're OK with Catholics for Choice enshrining their perspective in our laws, but not Secular Pro-Life, your issue on abortion laws has nothing to do with forcing religious beliefs on others. Click To Tweet

I’ve sat in a room and listened to a Catholic layperson, a Jewish Rabbi, a Muslim imam, and Protestant pastors argue the reason why they defend abortion is because they are driven to do so because of their faith.

Rev. Daniel Kanter, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Dallas, founded a multifaith chaplaincy group that serves an abortion clinic. “My faith as a Unitarian Universalist says that every person has dignity and worth, and that no one should be condemned for their actions or relegated to not being able to make decisions about their bodily autonomy,” Kanter told RNS.

According to Powers’ logic, this mean the positions of the religious pro-choice advocates should not be allowed to become law. Where does that leave us? We have two groups claiming their religious faith influences them to take opposing views: the prohibition of abortion and the allowance of abortion. Which one can use their religious beliefs to shape our laws?

When we confront this question, we see Powers’ uses her argument to assert one group of religious leaders are allowed to use their faith while the others can’t. The consequence of her reasoning would be the Catholics for Choice can argue, according to their faith, the U.S. should have laws allowing elective abortion through an entire pregnancy, but Secular Pro-Life can’t argue for abortion restrictions.

Dismissing one perspective from political consideration because you disagree with the perceived religious origin is a clear example of the type of religious discrimination prohibited in the Constitution. Yes, the pro-life person can work to restrict abortion and speak about religious freedom because denying their ability to politically argue for their position would be a direct violation of their religious freedom.

Every law draws from someone’s ideology, which is influenced by their religious beliefs, even if those beliefs are that all religions are wrong. Pro-life Christians and pro-life atheists have just as much right as pro-choice individuals to campaign and work to see their abortion views become law, regardless of any religious motivations involved.

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