Abortion and the Separation of Church and Conscience

Today, many believe that one’s political views should in no way be shaped by his or religious convictions - at least on “moral issues” like abortion (economic issues are another matter, as many liberals seem more than happy to cite biblical verses they believe provide support for their favorite policies). Those who promote “conscience secularization”, as I refer to it, confidently rest their case on a gross misunderstanding of our country’s separation of church and state doctrine.

The constitutional basis of this doctrine is the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” As Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute explains,

“This clause not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. It also prohibits the government from unduly preferring religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion.”

Somehow, we have been led to believe that this clause commands us to set our religious beliefs aside while engaging in politics (at least when we are defending the “wrong” policies). Yet those who subscribe to this interpretation seem profoundly ignorant of the purpose of religion. Although we have come to accept a narrow view of religion as something practiced quietly at home or within church walls, most of us who actually practice a religion understand that it is supposed to permeate all areas of life – the spiritual, social, economic and, yes, political. It is a contradiction to express support for “religious freedom” while denying one’s right to exercise his or her religious beliefs. From this vantage point, we can more clearly see why the “Free Exercise Clause”, which explicitly protects this right, contradicts the conscience secularizers’ reading of the Constitution.

Of course, this right – like most others – is not absolute. It is not awfully difficult to think of scenarios in which religious teachings (or, to be more precise, our understanding and application of these teachings) would, if applied, impinge upon other rights or undermine social order. The relevant question, here, is whether one is overstepping the bounds of religious freedom by advocating for pro-life legislation on specifically religious grounds. 

My response ultimately rests on the fairly uncontroversial assumption that people, as such, are entitled to certain rights, including the core right to life. Most of us, regardless of our views on abortion, appear to agree with this assertion, as evidenced by the time and energy spent on debates over when "personhood" (defined here as the state in which the human organism acquires a right-bearing status) begins. 

When, exactly, does it begin? Most pro-lifers insist that conception marks the beginning of personhood; most (but not all) abortion rights advocates insist that it does not. But what both have in common is that they cannot use science to validate their views. Although we can scientifically establish when, say, a heart begins beating, this does not in itself show why the onset of heart-beating ought to be considered the point at which personhood begins. This is a normative question that science cannot possibly answer.

Therefore, we are left to choose between subjective views. With regard to abortion legislation, which view should be given less weight, and why? According to conscience secularizers, the religious pro-life view ought to be disregarded; first, because of the very fact that it is rooted in religious teaching, and second, because there are supposedly no external actors affected by the abortion.

The first reason merits little attention since, as I have already explained, there is no constitutional basis for this position. As for the second reason, it presupposes that the unborn are not people - and, therefore, entitled to life - thereby framing abortion as a matter of a woman’s personal choice (as epitomized in such famous slogans as “My body, my right”, or, “If you don’t like an abortion, don’t get one”). But, as I have already pointed out, there’s no scientific basis for this particular claim.

In short, an off-hand rejection of the religious pro-life view is without warrant. Indeed, there’s a solid case for preferring it over the pro-choice view. While there is certainly disagreement on when personhood begins, most people of good conscience would agree that those who are universally recognized as people (i.e., post-birth humans) have a right to life, even if they were conceived in such undesirable circumstances as poverty, rape or incest. Thus, while we cannot scientifically establish the point at which an entity actually becomes a person and, therefore, entitled to the same right, it makes sense to gamble on the possibility that it is a person. After all, the cost of terminating what may, in fact, be a person's life exceeds the cost of whatever hardship one endures in having an unwanted child who, prior to a certain point after conception, was actually not a person.

To conclude, it is constitutional and rational for religious pro-lifers to support anti-abortion legislation (although the specific policy implications of this conclusion are a separate matter that I hope to address in the future). In spite of how we religious pro-lifers are normally portrayed, we are not forcing our religion on mothers; rather, we are against imposing irreligion on the unborn, whose right to life is being denied for philosophical (not scientific) reasons. And this denial strikes me as unconstitutional, or, to use the Legal Information Institute’s language, reflective of an “undue preference of non-religion over religion”.

Amir Azarvan

Amir Azarvan is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College. He currently serves on the Executive Committee of the American Solidarity Party, and blogs (occasionally) at Amirica