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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 2/15/19

Abortion Rights and Religious Authoritarianism

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For quite some time, I have been writing on the necessity of moving the struggle to maintain abortion rights beyond the "woman's rights to choose" to the struggle to re-establish and maintain the essential U.S. right of religious freedom. While I certainly believe in any woman's right to choose what happens to and in her body in the matter of pregnancy, I also believe that over time it is proving to be a losing argument, politically. And so, in, for example, a column published in 2017, I said, in part:

"The essence of Roe v. Wade was that, until the generally accepted time of fetal viability outside the womb, 24 weeks, women were to have freedom of choice in the outcome of pregnancy. The anti-abortion-rights movement lay fairly low during the 1970s. It began ramping up with the advent of the Reagan Administration. In the 1980 campaign, Candidate Reagan and the leadership of the Republican Party decided to use the issue to as one means of bringing the then-developing Political Religious Right further into the Party. . .

Capitol Hill Protest Sign on Lamp Post.  The Trumpites knew exactly whom they were choosing.  And so did Susan Collins.
Capitol Hill Protest Sign on Lamp Post. The Trumpites knew exactly whom they were choosing. And so did Susan Collins.
(Image by John Brighenti)
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"The pro-choice forces have been gradually losing the battle ever since. There are a variety of reasons for this state of affairs. One is in the realm of terminology. The pro-choice movement has stuck with that phrase rather than focusing on rights, as in "abortion rights," which in fact was at the center of Roe v. Wade, which was decided on a "right to privacy" interpretation of the 14th Amendment. Then, at least certain elements of the abortion rights movement allowed the anti-choicers to get away with the use of the term "pro-life," sometimes themselves even calling the anti-choicers "pro-life." Which gets to the essence of the problem and why the abortion rights movement is on its way to losing the battle on the national level. . . .

"This is at least in part because, with a few exceptions here and there, the abortion-rights forces have stayed with the "right-to-choose" argument (with which I fully agree), without using any others. And there is a big one out there, waiting to be mobilized. . . . And that is the issue of religious authoritarianism. . . .

"The position of the anti-abortion-rights forces is based exclusively on the religious concept of "when life begins." And it is a religious concept. In fact, to support it, the Protestant side of the anti-abortion-rights movement most often cites the "inerrant word of God" as found in the Bible. That the version most often cited by the anti-choicers is the King James version, an English translation created in the early 17th century by a 52-member committee of scholars and theologians, is a point often missed by the "inerrantists" (and their critics as well). If the King James version were to be regarded as "inerrant," one would have to assume that "God" spoke through every one of them. And, of course, what does that say about all of the other versions, appearing in numerous translations from the original Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin?

"As for the anti-choice Catholics (and there happen to be many pro-choice Catholics), they rely on an 1869 dictum from Pope Pius IX that life begins at the moment of conception. (This Pope was also the one who established the dictum of Papal Infallibility.) It happens to have reversed Catholic doctrine, going back at least as far as St. Thomas Aquinas, that life begins at the "time of viability."

"What the Republican Religious Right wants to do is right out of the 16th century: put the power of the State and the criminal law behind one particular set of religious doctrines. To say nothing of forcing a fundamental violation of the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment that they totally ignore: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or pro hibiting the free exercise thereof." The position of the Religious Right is nothing more or less than the drive to establish religious authoritarianism to govern the country. And of course, one must then ask, if they succeed on this matter, what's next?

"What we have here is the refusal of the pro-choice/abortion-rights side to address this fundamental question: are religious fundamentalists going to be allowed to set social policy on one of the oh-so-many matters of personal being and belief, based solely on the religious dogmas that they personally adhere to. They so desperately want their religious beliefs to set social policy that they advocate the employment of the criminal law to do so. Not only that, but the anti-abortion-rights doctrine, religion-based as it is, ignores the fact that many women who seek abortions, and their male partners, are themselves religious. They simply have a different set of religious beliefs than do the Fundamentalists and the Dominionists (like the current Vice-President of the United States)."

Donald Trump and Mike Pence - One is a Dominionist; the other has not the foggiest notion of what the word means.  But together they are leading the nation right back to the 16th century.
Donald Trump and Mike Pence - One is a Dominionist; the other has not the foggiest notion of what the word means. But together they are leading the nation right back to the 16th century.
(Image by DonkeyHotey)
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There has been little uptake or recognition for this argument and its potential strength. Until now. Not that New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been aware of my writings over the years, but now we have a powerful argument for abortion rights based on the concept of religious liberty that is found in the First Amendment made by centrist Democrat who is himself a Roman Catholic. As Governor Cuomo said:

"While governments may very well enact laws that are consistent with religious teaching, governments do not pass laws to be consistent with what any particular religion dictates.

"I was educated in religious schools, and I am a former altar boy. My Roman Catholic values are my personal values. The decisions I choose to make in my life, or in counseling my daughters, are based on my personal moral and religious beliefs.

"Thanks to the nation's founders, no elected official is empowered to make personal religious beliefs the law of the land. My oath of office is to the Constitutions of the United States and of the State of New York not to the Catholic Church. My religion cannot demand favoritism as I execute my public duties.

"Our country is founded on pluralism. The First Amendment defines our most sacred freedoms, including freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. But the first one listed is freedom of religion. We cannot have true freedom of religion without separation of church and state. And the country cannot function if religious officials are dictating policy to elected officials.

"Only by separating constitutional duties from religious beliefs can we have a country that allows all people the ability to pursue their own theological and moral principles in a nation true to its founding premise of religious freedom."

Bubby at f/1.4.  Not related to the text, but what a great cat, eh?
Bubby at f/1.4. Not related to the text, but what a great cat, eh?
(Image by Darron Birgenheier)
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And so, what we have here, well beyond "the woman's right to choose" (in which, to repeat, I firmly believe), is a fundamental struggle over religious liberty. For, to repeat, the anti-choice forces always base their position on religious doctrine of one sort or another. The anti-choice forces, again, want to criminalize any belief that life does not begin at the moment of conception, whether religious --- and again, there are many religious people who believe in the right to choose --- or, as in my case as an atheist --- or non-religious. And some anti-choicers would imprison physicians or women-having-an-abortion or both. This is a position and a policy that can take us straight back to the religious wars in Europe and Great Britain.

Yummy ... Bloody Mary @44&X.  No, I'm not talking about that one!
Yummy ... Bloody Mary @44&X. No, I'm not talking about that one!
(Image by Monica Nuez)
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Perhaps if imprisonment doesn't work to stop women from having abortions and physicians form providing them, burning at the stake will be next. If the drive to establish religious authoritarianism on the matter of abortion as the governing doctrine for the nation does not start, right now, what will be next? And if the pro-choice forces do not begin to fight on this issue, if we as a nation do get back to the time of Bloody Mary (the English Queen, not the drink), they will be as responsible for that state of affairs as would be the Republican Religious Right.

As the great British atheist, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) said:

" No power of government ought to be employed in the endeavor to establish any system or article of belief on the subject of religion."

And then: "Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God's will from their own. Temple police are always a bad sign. When chaplains start wearing guns and hanging out at the sheriff's office, watch out. Someone is about to have no king but Caesar."

Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal Priest, Professor, Theologian

(Article changed on February 15, 2019 at 21:03)

(Article changed on February 17, 2019 at 04:01)

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Steven Jonas, MD, MPH, MS is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at StonyBrookMedicine (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 35 books. In addition to his position on OpEdNews as a "Trusted Author, he is a Senior (more...)
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