Since early indications that the U.S. Supreme Court may overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade, following a leaked draft advisory on May 2, 2022, faith leaders from many faiths have worked to preserve access to abortion care, even as others prayed for Roe must indeed be cancelled. A Texas minister was among those working to coordinate abortion care, including taking women to New Mexico for abortions.
Religious communities in the United States have long been divided on the issue of abortion. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that 57% of Americans support legal abortion. A majority of those who identified as evangelicals were opposed to abortion.
Prior to June 24, 2022, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, The Conversation asked several scholars to explain the multiple viewpoints between faith groups as well as the differences within denominations. Here are five articles from our archives:
1. The right to abortion as a religious freedom
Steven K. Green, director of the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy at Willamette University, explained why restricting abortion interferes with religious freedom.
The strong opposition of some Christian churches, such as the Catholic Church or the Southern Baptist Convention, is based on their views on when the “soul” is, when the soul is supposed to enter the fetus. Conservative Christians believe this happens at the time of conception.
Not all Christian denominations agree. As Green wrote, the United Church of Christ, for example, passed a resolution in 1981 that stated that “every woman should have the freedom to choose to follow her personal and religious convictions regarding the completion or discontinuance of a pregnancy”.
Additionally, other religious groups such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism have different beliefs about the soul.
Read more: Religious beliefs bolster the anti-abortion movement – but not all religions agree
2. What the Jewish texts say
Judaism allows abortion and requires it even when a woman’s health is in danger, according to Rachel Mikva, professor of Jewish studies at Chicago Theological Seminary. The majority of the founding Jewish texts affirm that a fetus does not attain the status of a person until birth.
There is some difference of opinion among Orthodox rabbis, but it is possible to consider various perspectives.
Overall, according to a 2017 Pew survey, 83% of American Jews believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Even ultra-Orthodox leaders, as Mikva has found, have resisted anti-abortion measures that do not allow religious exceptions.
Read more: There’s more than one religious view on abortion — here’s what Jewish texts say
3. Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist views
Beliefs from other religious traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam also show that religions place the soul at different times and give it varying degrees of importance, according to Samira Mehta, assistant professor of soul studies. Women and Gender and Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Muslim scholars and clerics, for example, have varying positions on abortion. “Some think abortion is never allowed, and many allow it until sleep onset, which is often placed at 120 days gestation, just before 18 weeks,” Mehta said. In general, classical Islamic law considers legal personality to begin at birth, and therefore many Muslim religious leaders allow abortion to save the life of the mother.
Opinions in Hinduism and Buddhism are diverse. “Most Hindus believe in reincarnation, which means that although one can enter a body with birth and exit with death, life itself does not precisely begin or end. Rather, any given moment in a human body is seen as part of an endless cycle of life – which makes the question of when life begins quite different from that in Abrahamic religions,” Mehta wrote. . For Buddhists, a decision about abortion is treated with compassion and seen as a “moral choice”, depending on the circumstances.
Read more: There is no one ‘religious view’ on abortion: Religion, gender and sexuality expert explains
4. Southern Baptist Change of View
The researchers also pointed out how, in conservative religious groups, beliefs have changed over time. Researcher Susan M. Shaw, who has long studied Southern Baptists, explained that they were not always opposed to abortion.
According to Shaw, the change in opinion among Southern Baptists began in the 1980s, when a more conservative group took over the denomination. At that time, an “abortion resolution” was drafted which declared that “abortion terminates the life of a developing human being” and called for legal measures “prohibiting abortion except to save the mother’s life”.
In addition, as Shaw discovered, another “interesting change” occurred in this resolution – instead of referring to fetal life, as previous resolutions did, the 1980 resolution called on fetuses “to to be born” or “pre-born” human life or “persons”. The fetus, as she wrote, “was no longer a developing organism dependent on a woman’s body, but rather a full human being with the same status and human rights as women.”
Read more: Southern Baptist history shows they didn’t always oppose abortion
5. Reproductive options in premodern Christianity
The researchers pointed out that among premodern Christians as well, views on abortion were more complex. According to religious scholar Luis Josué Salés, methods of preventing and terminating pregnancy flourished in pre-modern Christian societies, especially in the medieval Roman Empire.
Indeed, premodern Christians may have actively developed reproductive options for women, Salés found. Sixth-century Christian physician Aetios of Amida and Paulos of Aigina, who arrived a century later, are said to have provided instructions for performing abortions and making contraceptives.
Read more: Christian attitudes surrounding abortion have a more nuanced history than current events suggest
In the United States, the first restrictions on abortion were not enacted until the 1820s. As Mehta aptly put it, “We tend to think of the religious response to abortion as opposition, but the reality is much more complicated.”