When someone seeks abortion advice from Rabbi Jay Sherwood, head of Temple Shalom, the largest Jewish synagogue in Colorado Springs, he cites Jewish law, which he says subscribes to an undisputed rabbinical conclusion that life begins at birth, not at conception.
Sherwood references the Talmud, the main source of Jewish religious law and theology, referring to the unborn baby as simply water in the mother before birth. And, if a pregnant woman miscarries at the hands of another, it’s considered a case of property damage, he says.
Ever since the Talmud was created between the second and fifth centuries, rabbinical experts have permitted abortion when the mother’s life is in danger and sometimes enforced it, Sherwood adds.
Sherwood’s position points to a well-known but often underestimated fact about religious views on the highly emotional and controversial issue of abortion: Not all religions oppose the procedure. Indeed, the theological tenets of major religions offer different perspectives on central questions that define life, including the point of conception.
And the leaked draft of a majority opinion invalidating Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey is about to re-emphasize the deep divisions not just between major religions, but also within them, especially if the struggle shifts to states.
“It will just be another massive issue that fuels the culture wars,” said Jeffrey Scholes, director of the Center for Religious Diversity and Public Life at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Scholes thinks the impending Supreme Court decision, assuming it overturns Roe, will only embolden both sides.
Scholes also sees a sort of ecumenical response – members of different faiths banding together to oppose or support abortion, deploying arguments framed in religious language.
In a way, the issue reinforces this unity on each side as it touches on religion, politics, women’s personal rights, medicine, morals and philosophy, he said.
“Every side has an enemy, and that always binds people together,” Scholes said. “You’re either pro-life or pro-choice, and there’s really nothing in between. There are debates within the camps about late-term abortions, but this brings together different groups for and against the opposing camp.
While polls show conservative Christians, including Evangelicals, Catholics and Mormons, tend to vote for candidates and issues that support their views on abortion, Scholes said liberal Catholics led the way. organized opposition to abortion in the 1960s.
Evangelicals only joined public dissent in the late 1970s after the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide, said Scholes, who also chairs the department. of school philosophy.
This spawned what Scholes calls a “strange unity” of evangelicals standing side by side with Catholics, a relationship that remains strong to this day.
“We just assume that evangelicals have always been against abortion, but that’s not the case at all,” he said. “All the denominations wavered on this issue and were inconsistent.”
The Bible does not mention abortion, he said, and different religions and denominations interpret biblical texts differently.
He noted that Christians who oppose abortion generally argue that life begins at conception and argue that abortion constitutes murder and often refer to the Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill.
For Sherwood’s Jewish faith, the debate has revolved for centuries around the definition of that phrase – when the mother’s life is in danger. Some Jews believe it means cases in which the mother is at risk of dying, while others say the wording encompasses the mother’s physical, mental, spiritual, emotional or financial health at risk.
And while Jewish law says people should follow the law of the land, whatever the law of the land is, it doesn’t change Jewish law or thought, the rabbi said.
“How an individual reacts to a law that is passed or overturned is another matter,” he said. “But Judaism talks about how abortion is permitted, and what a Supreme Court or Congress or Legislature does or doesn’t do doesn’t change what Judaism says.”
Indeed, many Jews do not oppose abortion either.
A majority of Muslims, meanwhile, take a conservative approach to abortion.
But Arshad Yousufi, a longtime member of the Colorado Springs Islamic Society Mosque, said Islam does not completely ban the procedure.
“In the old days, people, if they didn’t want a child, they just killed the child,” he said.
While saying he is not a scholar, Yousufi said Muslims agree that life begins at conception because Adam, the first man created by God, was a lump of clay until God breathes a soul into it.
So, Yousufi said, a fetus is considered human at 120 days or four months gestation, when abortions are banned. He said the aborted remains should be buried.
But, he added, in every religion “there is a spectrum”.
The question for Muslims is not simple, he said. Women can say they have a right to their own body, but whether they have a right to the body inside their body is disputed, Yousufi said.
Mixed Christian opinions
Abortion is considered a grave evil and a sin in the teachings of the Catholic Church, noted Julie Bailey, vice president of the nonprofit Pikes Peak Citizens for Life and director of Respect Life Apostolate for the Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs.
“Our Catholic faith has always held as a central teaching – and the bishops of the United States have reaffirmed it at every meeting – that abortion is a matter of preeminent social justice,” she said, adding that it is based on the belief that “the life of every human being is made in the image and likeness of God.
It’s also a fundamental principle in Focus on the Family’s advocacy work, said Nicole Hunt, life issues analyst and spokesperson for the Colorado Springs-based international evangelical media communications organization.
“We believe that every person has inherent dignity and worth, and it starts in the womb with an unborn baby,” she said.
Hunt points to a psalmist describing God binding the person in the womb, and God telling the prophet Jeremiah that he knew him and consecrated him before he was born as the biblical support of conviction.
But Jonathan Hall, senior pastor of First Christian Church, part of the Disciples of Christ, said men have been oppressing and trying to control women’s bodies since Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Hall describes his congregation as a diverse church with expansive views and no creed.
“I think it’s a doctrinal or theological issue of trusting women to make their own decisions, believing in them and empowering them,” he said.
“That’s where we need to focus our attention,” Hall said. “Trying to legislate morality is not the right way to do it. We should look at the scriptures and pray, and that’s for me where the decision should be made. Look at your heart. It shouldn’t be done by other people.
Hall’s argument shows a subtle shift in emphasis – focusing on the welfare of the mother or wife, instead of the life of the child.
Scholes, the university professor, said proponents of abortion rights, who also identify as spiritual, view abortion as a women’s health issue that involves parity for the poor and responds to a appeal to help women in need.
“They see it as a religiously moral issue not to have the baby and to care for someone who is in need and who is struggling,” he said.
What is clear is that forces for and against abortion are beginning to mobilize, anticipating a state-by-state struggle that offers conservatives the option to ban or restrict abortion. The Progressives, meanwhile, are gearing up to play defense.
In 1967, Colorado became the first state in the country to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape, incest or maternal harm. It is now one of seven states that offer abortion throughout pregnancy.
In this context, anti-abortion advocates and abortion rights supporters of different faiths have united to promote their side of the conflict.
“It gave us the opportunity to put aside our theological and doctrinal differences to work together, knowing that there is something special about the human person from the very first moments after fertilization,” Bailey said of Pikes Peak Citizens for Life.
Hunt of Focus on the Family agrees that Christians who oppose abortion need to fight even harder now.
“If Roe v. Wade is overturned, chances are every state will decide abortion policy, and instead of one big national fight, we’ll try to win the hearts and minds of people in every state,” Hunt said. “We’re going to need everyone on deck.”