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America is a nation that prides itself on separating church and state—that is, unless the issue is abortion. Recently, a rash of state restrictions on abortion procedures exposed two fundamental truths about the Christian right: first, its adherents dismiss secular ideals, especially the commitment to evidence-based inquiry; second, they seek to make religion operative within secular law.
When lobbying for abortion restrictions, the pro-life movement all but ignores empirical studies that challenge its harm narrative, namely, that terminating a pregnancy causes women to experience psychological and emotional trauma. The research, however, discredits this post-truth assumption. For instance, in a 2015 American study, more than 95% of women did not regret their abortions. “Women overwhelmingly felt abortion was the right decision in both the short-term and over three years, and the intensity of emotions and frequency of thinking about the abortion declined over time,” the study concluded.
Moreover, influential religious lobby groups, such as Focus on the Family, disseminate propaganda concerning the long-term physical risks of abortions. Yet it is highly unlikely that women will experience severe medical difficulties following a pregnancy termination. A 2018 landmark report called “The Safety and Quality of Abortion Care in the United States" found that complications from all abortions were "rare."
As well, most Americans support the pro-choice position. According to a 2019 CBS News poll, two-thirds of Americans want Roe v. Wade left in place, and if the law were overturned, almost twice as many Americans (48%) would be dissatisfied/angry as opposed to happy/satisfied (26%).
In a 2018 Gallup poll, when asked “with respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?” more Americans sided with the former (49% versus 45% respectively). And according to a 2018 Pew Research Survey, 58% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, whereas only 37% believe that it should be illegal.
If more Americans identify as pro-choice, want open access to abortion, and experience few physical or psychological drawbacks, what then is driving the recent shift towards abolition?
Some politicians defending the pro-life perspective have made no attempt to hide their religious biases. By legislating morality now, they hope to topple Roe v. Wade later, with the help of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority.
Take, for instance, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. She believes that the sanctity of life ethos, as described in the Book of Genesis, should be the guiding principle shaping the state’s new fetal “heartbeat” law. “This legislation [HB 314] stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians' deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God," affirmed Ivey.
There are no exceptions to this new anti-abortion legislation—not even for rape or incest—even though 77% of Americans, including 57% of those who identify as “pro-life,” support abortion in cases of rape or incest.
Likewise, Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington), the State Representative who introduced the Abolition of Abortion in Texas Act, admits that Christian norms are foundational to his legislative aims. “God creates children in his own image, regardless of how that child is brought into the world, it’s created in his image, and how can someone want to destroy that?”
In Georgia, HB 481, dubbed the “Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act,” would ban abortion when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, typically at six weeks’ gestation. After signing the bill, Republican Governor Brian Kemp confirmed that the law was a declaration–“the declaration that that all life has value, that all life matters, and that all life is worthy of protection.”
The Act’s sponsor, Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), maintained the traditional Christian notion that life begins at conception. “That fact that, morphologically, certain organs have not grown or their arms aren’t as visible, doesn’t change the fact that they are living, distinct as human being.”
Other conservative lawmakers who supported the LIFE Act outlined their position in vivid religious terms. “There are many scriptures that make it clear to me that God knew us and had a plan for us when we were still in our mother’s womb. The word abortion is not going to be found in the Bible,” admitted Republican Sen. Greg Kirk.
The religious right promises that those who reject the sanctity of human life will experience divine retribution here on earth. In Missouri, doctors who perform abortions after the cutoff of eight weeks face 15 years in prison. In Alabama, the punishment for doctors who perform abortions is 99 years in prison.
Not only did Texas politicians forbid exceptions for rape, incest or fetal abnormalities, but women who carry out an abortion could be prosecuted for murder—and potentially receive the death penalty. Texas pro-life legislators appear oblivious to the irony of such punitive measures.
Americans face an important litmus test. Do they want laws grounded in secular values—specifically, those based on evidence-based reasoning, compassion for women, and equality rights—or do they want laws shaped by religious dogma, faith positions, and blind obedience?
To maintain public support, pro-choice advocates of all stripes must continue to emphasize the importance of secular ideals. That’s because pro-life forces, mainly from the religious right, have already decided that belief trumps truth.
Stuart Chambers, Ph.D., teaches in the school of sociological and anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa.