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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 9/30/20

The Destruction of Abortion Rights and the Rise of Religious Authoritarianism

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Expulsion of the Russian envoy to the Holy See Felix von Meyendorff by Pope Pius IX. He didn't like Russian envoys any more than he liked women having control over their own bodies.
Expulsion of the Russian envoy to the Holy See Felix von Meyendorff by Pope Pius IX. He didn't like Russian envoys any more than he liked women having control over their own bodies.
(Image by Wikipedia (, Author: Jędrzej Brydak (1837-1876))
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"Either this nation shall kill racism, or racism shall kill this nation." (S. Jonas, August, 2018)


Introductory Note:

The current version of this column, which itself is based on two previous columns of mine on the same subject, was published elsewhere (see below) before Trump's announcement of the choice of Judge Amy Coney Barrett ( to replace Justice Ginsburg on the Bench. (We won't comment on how the Trumpublicans in the Senate under Moscow Mitch are redefining the Yiddish term "gall.") Presumably Judge Barrett will be confirmed before the election, with Trump hoping of course that she will be a vote for him in case an election gets to be decided once again by the Supreme. I'm not actually sure that that would happen. But that is a matter for another time.

What is a matter for this time is that Judge Barrett is a self-defined Far Rightist whose doctrines, as she makes clear are informed by Catholic Dogma (not used derogatorily). All of her positions on abortion and contraceptive rights are based on an extreme version of the "life begins at the moment of conception" doctrine, a concept new-at-the-time invented and handed down by Pope Pius IX in 1869 (see below). And so, for example, Judge Barrett would illegalize abortion for genetically-damaged fetuses at the option of the parents, thus condemning both the child and the parents to living the rest of their lives in that state, and in many cases changing their economic circumstances, to satisfy Judge Barrett's religious doctrine that life begins at the moment of conception. That is an example of religious authoritarianism --- religious views determining the content of the law and government policy in carrying them out dictatorially --- to the extreme. This is what our nation will be facing if former Vice-President Biden does not win the Presidency and if the Democrats do not then move to restructure the Supreme Court as outlined below. And so, to the column originally intended for this space.


As many observers have noted, with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg our nation is heading into what could be an enormously retrograde period in regard of individual rights and liberties. In the immediate future Trump is going to get his far-Rightist woman (whichever one) confirmed to the Supreme Court. Even if John Roberts, a Rightist himself, but not that far a Rightist, continues to maintain something of an institutionalist approach to the Constitution and the role of the Court, again as is well-known, in the immediate future the Court will at least be a consistent 5-4 Right. And Trump, actually celebrating the Justice's death (while at the same time revealing what he thinks of his chances of re-election with fair vote-counting), gleefully said words to the effect of "Now I can win a second term, 6-3."

Now, IF Biden can win the Presidency, and IF the Democrats can take the Senate with more than one seat to spare (one does not want to be in the position of having to count on Joe Manchin), as is well-known, the Democrats could a) end the filibuster, b) admit the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico as reliably Democratic states, and c) pack the Court. Of course, even with the requisite number of Senate seats, that master of the Senate Rules Moscow Mitch could possibly figure out a way to gum up the works. But before we would need to start worrying about that, we would have to get to that position first.

In the meantime, Trump could remain in the Presidency. Notice that I did not say "win," because I don't think that he can. But the Trumpublicans probably have cheating systems in place (including the mass theft and destruction of paper ballots before counting) that even Greg Palast (How Trump Stole 2020) hasn't thought of. So, especially with the Court suddenly tilted sharply his way, Trump could still be there. And then, in terms of civil liberties, everything would be under attack. Especially Roe v. Wade and abortion rights (and oh how I wish that the pro-abortion rights movement would use that term instead of the more common "we favor abortion." For actually, no one favors abortion if it can be avoided. But that's another story.) The battle will be joined.

The essence of Roe v. Wade was that, until the generally accepted time of fetal viability outside the womb, 24 weeks, nation-wide 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 as one means of bringing the then-developing Political Religious Right further into their Party.

It was at about that time that the anti-abortion-rights forces began using the term "pro-life" to characterize their movement. ("Pro-life" is a term that was actually invented after the end of the Second World War by Hitler's Pope, that great pro-lifer who kept his own counsel about the Holocaust during the War, Pius XII.) And since that time, even some elements of the pro-choice movement have used the term "pro-life" to describe the anti-choicers. Thus at least some focus has been lost over what was in fact at the center of Roe v. Wade, which was decided on a "right to privacy" interpretation of the 14th Amendment. But there is a very big additional support-for-individual liberties issue out there, just waiting to be mobilized. And that is the issue of religious authoritarianism.

As it happens, the position of the anti-abortion-rights forces is based exclusively on the religious concept of "when life begins." They make no bones about this. As is well-known, they equate abortion with murder, because according to them "life begins at the moment of conception." But that is an entirely religious concept. Let's repeat that for many people, even on the abortion-rights side, miss it. "Pro-life" is an entirely religious concept. For the Protestant side of the anti-abortion-rights movement the authority for their position is the "inerrant word of God" as found in one particular version of 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 member of that committee. And, of course, what does that say about the myriad other versions of the Bible, appearing in numerous translations from the original Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin? Why, it also might be asked, did God wait so long to have an inerrant version produced?)

As for the anti-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.) That dictum happens to have reversed Catholic doctrine, going back at least as far as St. Thomas Aquinas, that life begins at the "time of quickening." But since the self-designated "infallible Pope" said it, it is (as the current U.S. President would say) what it is.

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 prohibiting 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, it's not just the organized Religious Right. We now have an Attorney General who claims that a major enemy for our nation is "militant secularism." As a militant secularist myself, I take this particular one most personally. And of course, one must then ask, if they succeed on this matter --- of specifying approved religions as well as non-approved non-religious belief --- what's next? The total violation of the Establishment Clause (in reverse) to go after folk who are non-religious? Or having battles over whose justification of the "life begins at the moment of conception" doctrine is the correct one, Catholic or Protestant.

What I am suggesting here is that in addition to defending the "woman's right to choose," the pro-choice/abortion-rights side needs 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, as church-going steadily declines in the United States, 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).

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 a 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 [emphasis added]."

What a clear statement of what I am talking about (and actually have been talking about for some years now [see the references below and my book "The 15% Solution"]). 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. And if Trump remains in the Presidency, given a Trumpian Supreme Court, the battle will be fully joined. 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, non-religious who do too. Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama has said that in her opinion "every life is a sacred gift from God." That obviously religious position is fine --- for her. But she wants that belief to be ensconced in the law. And the AL law, based on that religious concept, if allowed to go into effect, would imprison physicians or women-having-an-abortion or both, and the death penalty was considered. Cannot get any more religiously authoritarian than that.

This is a position and a policy that can take us straight back to the religious wars in Europe and Great Britain of the 16th and 17th centuries. Perhaps if imprisonment doesn't work to stop women from having abortions and physicians from 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 is not stopped, right now, what will be next? And in my view 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, as Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal Priest, Professor, Theologian, said:

"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."


Note: This column is based in part on three earlier ones of mine. One was originally published on on Feb. 15, 2019, Click Here; the second at at Click Here (2017); and the third at: Click Here (current).

(Article changed on October 1, 2020 at 01:41)

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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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